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June 29, 2020

Is it a death penalty success or failure when worst-of-the-worst plead guilty to avoid capital trial?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this AP story out of California headlined "Accused ‘Golden State Killer’ admits murders, will avoid death penalty."  Here are the basics:

A former police officer who terrorized California as a serial burglar and rapist and went on to kill more than a dozen people while evading capture for decades pleaded guilty Monday to murders attributed to a criminal dubbed the Golden State Killer.

Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. had remained almost silent in court since his 2018 arrest until he uttered the word “guilty” in a hushed and raspy voice multiple times in a plea agreement that will spare him the death penalty for a life sentence with no chance of parole.

DeAngelo, 74, has never publicly acknowledged the killings, but offered up a confession of sorts after his arrest that cryptically referred to an inner personality named “Jerry” that had apparently forced him to commit the wave of crimes that ended abruptly in 1986. “I did all that,” DeAngelo said to himself while alone in a police interrogation room after his arrest in April 2018, Sacramento County prosecutor Thien Ho said....

DeAngelo, seated in a wheelchair on a makeshift stage in a university ballroom that could accommodate hundreds of observers a safe distance apart during the coronavirus pandemic, acknowledged he would plead guilty to 13 counts of murder and dozens of rapes that are too old to prosecute. “The scope of Joseph DeAngelo’s crimes is simply staggering,” Ho said. ”Each time he escaped, slipping away silently into the night.”...

DeAngelo, a Vietnam veteran and a grandfather, had never been on the radar of investigators who spent years trying to track down the culprit. It wasn’t until after the crimes ended that investigators connected a series of assaults in central and Northern California to slayings in Southern California and settled on the umbrella Golden State Killer nickname for the mysterious assailant.

DeAngelo was caught after police used DNA from crime scenes to find a distant relative through a popular genealogy website database and then built a family tree that eventually led them to him. They then tailed DeAngelo and were able to secretly collect DNA from his car door and a discarded tissue to get an arrest warrant....

He tied up husbands and boyfriends and told them he’d kill them if they made a sound while he assaulted the women. Eventually he slipped off into the dark on foot or by bicycle and even managed to evade police who at times believed they came close to catching him. DeAngelo knew the territory well. He had started on the police force in the San Joaquin Valley farm town of Exeter in 1973, where he is believed to have committed his first burglaries and first killing....

Victims’ family members were anxious about what to expect before the court hearing began. “I’ve been on pins and needles because I just don’t like that our lives are tied to him, again,” said Jennifer Carole, the daughter of Lyman Smith, a lawyer who was slain in 1980 at age 43 in Ventura County. His wife, 33-year-old Charlene Smith, was also raped and killed.

A guilty plea and life sentence avoids a trial or even the planned weeks-long preliminary hearing. The victims expect to confront him at his sentencing in August, where it’s expected to take several days to tell DeAngelo and Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman what they have suffered. Gay and Bob Hardwick were among the survivors looking forward to DeAngelo admitting to their 1978 assault.

The death penalty was never realistic anyway, Gay Hardwick said, given DeAngelo’s age and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s moratorium on executions. “He certainly does deserve to die, in my view, so I am seeing that he is trading the death penalty for death in prison,” she said. “It will be good to put the thing to rest. I think he will never serve the sentence that we have served — we’ve served the sentence for 42 years.”

A person who murdered more than a dozen and raped many more would certainly seem to qualify as one of the "worst-of-the-worst" offenders that are often said to be those for whom the death penalty is reserved. But DeAngelo is not getting the ultimately penalty of death, so this case is arguably a story of death penalty failure.  And yet, without the death penalty as a (remote) possibility, DeAngelo would have arguably had no reason to plead guilty and spare victims the pain of a trial and other court proceedings. And so maybe this case is still a story of death penalty success.

June 29, 2020 at 07:06 PM | Permalink

Comments

DeAngelo is 74, even if he went to trial and got the death penalty and even if California was actually executing people he would still not live long enough to see an execution date, so I think it is inaccurate to theorize that he didn't go to trial to avoid the death penalty. In my experience defendants like this really have little incentive to go to trial and rarely do so merely because, "they have nothing to lose." You can spin this any way you like but I don't think you can seriously say that the death penalty in California by any measure could be called a success.

Posted by: s. Milani | Jul 1, 2020 12:48:53 PM

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