A new report just published by the ACLU calls our attention to Los Angeles County. There, District Attorney Jackie Lacey—who has been under increasing scrutiny despite her claims of being a reformer—has presided over an organization that continues to waste the jurisdiction’s precious time and resources on death-penalty prosecutions. Not only are these capital sentences extremely unlikely to result in executions (the Governor recently closed the death chamber), but they also underscore stunning racial disparities that eviscerate any claim Lacey may make about representing constituents or delivering what the people of L.A. County want. The ACLU report delivers this explosive information with admirable restraint: “All of the 22 people who received death sentences while DA Lacey has been in office are people of color.”
The racial (racist) dimensions to the death penalty are not news at The Open File, but rarely do the numbers scream so piercingly. When the infamous (now former) Caddo Parish District Attorney Dale Cox said that he thought the system needed to kill more people, we noted:
Most disturbingly, the New Yorker reports that [in Caddo] “seventy-seven per cent of those sentenced to death in the past forty years have been black, and nearly half were convicted for killing a white person. A white person has never been sentenced to death for killing a black person.”
Those numbers may make your eyebrows rise but they probably won’t make your jaw drop. After all, that’s Shreveport, briefly a capital for the Confederacy. Los Angeles isn’t Shreveport.
However, today’s report shows that the perceptual differences between L.A. County and Caddo Parish are overblown:
Between 2000 and 2015, Latinx, Black, and Asian homicide victims collectively comprised 87% of the victims of homicide in Los Angeles County, while white homicide victims constituted only 12%. Nonetheless, more than a third (36%) of the 22 defendants sentenced to death during DA Lacey’s term involved at least one white victim.
If Jackie Lacey is looking for a slogan for her 2020 re-election campaign, she could credibly run with any of these options: “Making L.A. More Like Shreveport, One Death Sentence At a Time;” “Los Angeles County: the New Deep South;” and “Dale Cox 2.0.”
Ok, perhaps that last dig is a little unfair. We have given Lacey praise here before, when she announced changes to her office’s disclosure policy early in her tenure. Six years is a long time though. Lacey seems more and more out of touch with the times and with the County’s voters, who have repeatedly expressed a desire to turn away from the death penalty.
Perhaps the better comparison for L.A. is Houston, another large city with a purportedly progressive prosecutor and a dismal history when it comes to fairness and the pursuit of capital sentences. A study we highlighted a few years ago “demonstrat[ed] that between 1992 and 1999, the Harris County DA’s Office was over three times more likely to seek the death penalty against African American defendants and four times more likely to seek the death penalty against Hispanic defendants than against similarly situated white defendants.” Although the ACLU report is not an in-depth academic study, it undoubtedly suggests that the numbers in L.A. County under Jackie Lacey would be just as disturbing. When it comes to upcoming prosecutorial elections, few will be more fascinating that those taking place in L.A. and Houston.
Before we sign off, we should mention something else about Lacey’s capital prosecutions. As today’s report notes, the defense lawyers representing the defendants who ended up being sentenced to death often performed far below reasonable professional standards. The DA’s office does not select the defense lawyers and of course cannot be tasked with defending the people they are prosecuting. But, it arguably should care more about justice than just winning. When a defense lawyer sleeps during the trial or is on the verge of getting disbarred because of ethical violations, responsible (and smart) prosecutors would do more than just get the “W” (win) in court and move on with their lives. They could intervene, and insist that whatever proceedings happen (especially in a capital case) must be done in accordance with the Constitution. It is not surprising that that did not happen in these cases; the death penalty is tied closely to prosecutorial misconduct, not to prosecutorial fairness. As the 22 death penalty cases proceed through the appeals and post-conviction process, do not be surprised when some unravel because of the State’s misconduct.