As Death Penalty Cases Fade, L.A. County Pays to Buck the Trend

As California’s economic crisis forces courtrooms and courthouses around the state to close their doors, access to justice is becoming scarcer. Over the last year, most courts have been dark once a month – the first such court closures in our state’s history.

Los Angeles County, home to California’s largest trial court system, has been feeling the pain of those court closures in more significant measure than most. It recently laid off more than 300 staff and is moving forward with shutting down 12 courtrooms. But meanwhile, a parallel trend is stalking the county that’s exacerbating the budget crisis. Astoundingly, Los Angeles County has become the leading death penalty county in the United States. In fact, in 2009 more people were sentenced to death in Los Angeles County than in any other state, including Texas, the longtime leader in this grim statistic.

The rise in death sentences in Los Angeles County couldn’t come at a worse time. Death penalty trials are costly – both in terms of actual dollars spent and court resources – and they require a unique double trial procedure: one full trial to determine if the defendant is innocent or guilty and a second trial to determine if he or she should be sentenced to death. They also require specially qualified judges and juries. Jury selection alone in a death penalty case can take longer than a non-death-penalty trial requires from start to finish. Dozens, sometimes even 100 pre-trial motions are filed in death penalty cases, requiring lengthy court hearings. Every proceeding, even a continuance, must be on the record with counsel and defendant present.

Several studies have found that a death penalty case, on average, consumes three times as much court time and costs $1 million more than a case in which the prosecution seeks permanent imprisonment. One recent death penalty trial cost more than $10 million; another required more than 20,000 hours of prosecution time.

As the state’s and the nation’s death penalty leader, Los Angeles County disproportionately burdens its courts with these costs. Last year, the county sent 13 people to death row at an estimated cost of $14.3 million more than if they had been sentenced to permanent imprisonment, also known as life without parole.

As the tab for the death penalty climbs in Los Angeles County, the trend has been the opposite nationwide, where the tide has turned toward permanent imprisonment as a safe and cost-effective alternative. This trend has been fueled by growing concern about the wrongful conviction of innocent people and the high costs of the death penalty in comparison to permanent imprisonment. In 2009, the number of new death sentences nationwide reached the lowest level since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

Consider Harris County, Texas, the most populous county in Texas, and long the most aggressive death penalty county in the country. Only 10 years ago, Harris County outpaced Los Angeles County in new death sentences by more than two to one. Yet last year, Harris County had no death sentences. Prosecutors in Harris attribute this to the fact that as of 2005, permanent imprisonment became available in capital murder trials.

Likewise, across California, more and more counties are, in practice, replacing the death penalty with life without parole. Prosecutors and the public are reassured to know that every person sentenced to permanent imprisonment will die in prison or has died in prison.

Yet some elected officials want the state to spend even more on the death penalty. State Sen. Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach) recently introduced a bill (SB 1025) that would shift habeas petitions in death penalty cases away from the state Supreme Court and to the trial courts. In other words, Sen. Harman wants to take the lengthiest, most complicated, most resource-intensive parts of the death penalty appeals process, and hand them to the most overwhelmed, under-resourced courts in California’s judicial system. This would likely only create more financial hardships for county court systems, especially Los Angeles County’s, given that 30 percent of the people on California’s death row were sentenced in this county.

It’s time for all members of the legal community – judges and civil lawyers included – to speak out against the ongoing waste of judicial resources and taxpayer funds on the broken death penalty system, particularly in our underfunded and overburdened trial courts. The state – and Los Angeles County in particular – simply can’t afford the real-world financial consequences of continuing to pursue the death penalty.

Natasha Minsker and Ramona Ripston

Natasha Minsker (left) is the death penalty policy director of the ACLU of Northern California. Ramona Ripston (right) is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

Republished with permission from the ACLU Blog of Rights.

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