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December 14, 2020

Highlighting the election of local prosecutors who have pledged never to seek death sentences

Pasted image 0Daniel Nichanian has this great entry at The Appeal: Political Report titled "Newly Elected Prosecutors Are Challenging The Death Penalty," which effectively reviews the political success of a significant number of prosecutors who have pledged not to pursue capital sentences. Here is parts of the poast:

Death penalty opponents have made great strides over the last decade, getting states to outlaw the sentence or at least reduce its use. Now they’re gaining allies from local officials with direct power to shut down capital punishment: prosecutors.

Last week, Deborah Gonzalez and Jason Williams became the latest candidates to win elections for district attorney after pledging to never seek the death penalty once in office.  Their runoff wins in Athens, Georgia, and New Orleans add to a string of similar results this year in Los Angeles County, Arizona’s Pima County (Tucson), Georgia’s Fulton County (Atlanta), Oregon’s Multnomah County (Portland), and Texas’s Travis County (Austin).  Incoming prosecutors largely echoed advocates’ longtime claims, emphasizing that the death penalty is applied very unequally and that its use is inhumane and costly.

Their wins are poised to upend the culture of capital punishment in places that have been prolific in handing out death sentences, and advocates are preparing to press them to overturn these past sentences.

There are more than 200 people on death row from Los Angeles, where the DA election in November saw George Gascón defeat an incumbent who over the course of her tenure secured the death penalty nearly exclusively against people of color.  Gascón took office this week and promptly repeated his campaign pledge to not just drop the death penalty in future cases but also review past death sentences, a step few prosecutors have taken.  “The death penalty does not make us safer,” Gascón tweeted on Monday. “It’s racist, morally untenable, irreversible, and expensive.  And today, it’s off the table.”

Pima County has also been a death penalty hotspot.  It leads Arizona counties in number of executions since the penalty was reinstated in 1976. But this fall voters elected as their chief prosecutor a former public defender, Laura Conover, who highlighted her past advocacy with the Coalition of Arizonans to Abolish the Death Penalty. Conover is not the first candidate with such experience to be elected.  Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, who was the legal director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, won a prosecutor’s race in northern Virginia last year on a similar platform.

“It’s absolutely tremendous and exciting that this is taking place in Louisiana, and in Georgia, and in Virginia, states that have a long history with the death penalty, and of course Los Angeles County, one of the biggest contributors to the enormous Californian death row,” said Laura Porter, executive director of the 8th Amendment Project.  “It’s supportive of the trend of the country overall moving away from the death penalty.”

These seven newly elected prosecutors who said they would never seek a death sentence are Democrats, even though Republicans haven’t been absent from the anti-death penalty movement. Support from some Republican lawmakers proved decisive in 2019 and 2020 when Colorado and New Hampshire’s legislatures repealed the death penalty.  (The Political Report only analyzed candidate positions in the 28 states where the death penalty is still legal.)

Elsewhere, longtime prosecutors who have repeatedly used the death penalty lost re-election bids. Most notably, Ron O’Brien is on his way out in Franklin County, Ohio, after decades of zealously championing capital punishment.  The incoming prosecutor, Democrat Gary Tyack, told the Political Report via a spokesperson during his campaign that he would support legislation to ban the death penalty but also that he would consider seeking it as long as it is permitted by the state.  Patsy Austin-Gatson, the incoming Democratic DA in Gwinnett County, Georgia, told the Political Report the same thing this week.

Advocates hope that more DAs will draw strong lines in the sand and rule out adding people to death row. But they also stress that, even with those who make such forward-looking commitments, more is needed.  Prosecutors who oppose the death penalty should also use all legal and political means at their disposal to resentence people who are already on death row and to fight their executions.  “It’s really important … to push prosecutors not just to say, ‘I’ll refrain from using this harsh practice in the future,’ but to refuse to preside over it in the present,” said Ben Cohen, an attorney who works against the death penalty in Louisiana.  “It’s barbaric to allow death sentences from the 1980’s and 1990’s to be executed on your watch.”...

In Los Angeles, though, Gascón released a plan early in his campaign outlining how he would aim to get people off of death row “utilizing every legal avenue available to me.” “It’s completely transformative,” said Natasha Minsker, an attorney who is part of Gascón’s transition team on the death penalty.  “The fact that Los Angeles County is now, as of today, going to stop pursuing death sentences and going to shift in a different direction … is a complete game changer.”  No county in the nation has more people on death row than Los Angeles; Angelenos approved abolishing capital punishment in a 2016 referendum but the initiative failed statewide.

Minsker outlined the range of tools that Gascón can use. Where there is active litigation over a specific legal or factual issue, he could concede arguments made by defense attorneys “and no longer fight for [death sentences] to be in place,” she said.  Many appeals are handled by the attorney general rather than the DA, but Gascón could still file amicus briefs to assist people contesting their sentences.  Gascón could also request a resentencing hearing for someone on death row, Minsker said.  DAs don’t necessarily have this power nationally; here it stems from California’s relatively new Section 1170(d), a statute that adopted in 2018 that expanded DAs’ powers to revisit old cases. Minsker warned that courts retain ultimate say in whether to remove people from death row.  “The real unknown here is the judges,” she said.  “I’m concerned that we may end up in a situation where we have disparities based on who the judge is.”

It is usually prosecutors who are the greatest hurdle to ending or curtailing the death penalty.  They routinely work to derail legislative proposals, including in Ohio, Oregon, and Wyoming over the last few years.  Even DAs who campaigned on their discomfort with capital punishment have gone on to fight efforts to stop executions, such as Kim Ogg in Harris County (Houston).  But Ogg had not outright ruled out seeking the death penalty during her 2016 campaign, a far cry from the stronger positions staked by the latest wave of winners.

December 14, 2020 at 05:33 PM | Permalink

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