SAN FRANCISCO — In what is becoming the state's most important death penalty case, a judge has again told state prosecutors to produce details on thousands of homicides to determine whether capital punishment as currently imposed is discriminatory.
Defense lawyers are seeking the information to buttress their belief that prosecutors are more likely to seek the death penalty and juries are more willing to impose it if the murderer is a black man, and his victims were white, female or young.
A ruling by the state Supreme Court that the death penalty is discriminatory would result in capital punishment being declared unconstitutional, defense lawyers and prosecutors believe.
The high court last year instructed retired Court of Appeal Justice Bernard Jefferson to hold hearings on the discrimination claim. Jefferson initially told prosecutors to produce the information last June.
But the state attorney general's office and the Los Angeles County district attorney protested that they did not have access to the data, prompting Jefferson to reconsider his decision.
However, in an order dated Monday and released on Tuesday, Jefferson issued a virtual copy of the June order. It directs prosecutors to produce names of everyone convicted of murder or manslaughter since August, 1977, when the death penalty was reinstated in California.
Prosecutors also must give defense lawyers identification numbers for each case and the county in which the cases were tried. Jefferson set a deadline of May 9.
As many as 10,000 cases of murder and manslaughter are involved, Deputy Atty. Gen. Susan Frierson has said. The cost of obtaining the information is expected to mount into the hundreds of thousands of dollars and take several months.
The order comes in the case of death row inmate Earl Lloyd Jackson, who was sentenced to death for the 1977 murders of two elderly women in Long Beach. Jackson is one of three men whose death sentences have been affirmed by the state Supreme Court since the death penalty was reinstated.
Like the other two, he is pressing his appeal further, claiming that the death penalty was imposed on him because he is black and his victims were white women.
Assistant Atty. Gen. Edward O'Brien, in charge of death penalty cases for the attorney general, said the office will seek review by the state Supreme Court.