Ventura County prosecutors Friday strongly refuted allegations lodged by defense attorneys last week that the race and gender of slaying victims have influenced decisions on whether to seek the death penalty against their accused killers.
In a motion filed late Friday, the county's top prosecutor said there was no truth to assertions that he is more likely to pursue the death penalty in murder cases involving white female victims.
"I alone make the decision to seek the death penalty for all death-eligible defendants charged with murder in Ventura County," Dist. Atty. Michael Bradbury stated in a declaration at the end of the 30-page brief.
"I have never considered race or ethnicity in arriving at such a decision," Bradbury said.
Bradbury added that gender is considered sometimes, but only in cases where it relates to sexual assaults or the vulnerability of the victim.
The response by the district attorney's office comes about a week after Deputy Public Defender Neil B. Quinn filed a motion that accused prosecutors of arbitrarily deciding who should face death and who should not.
Quinn is representing Diana Haun, 35, who along with her boyfriend, Michael Dally, 36, is charged with killing his wife.
Haun and Dally are facing the death penalty if convicted of plotting and carrying out the kidnap-slaying last year of 35-year-old homemaker Sherri Dally. Quinn contends in his motion that his client has been unfairly targeted for the death penalty because the person she is accused of killing was a white woman.
He wants the special circumstances in her case dismissed so she no longer faces death if convicted. Dally's attorneys plan to join in the motion.
To support his claim, Quinn cited statistics to show that in the last 10 years, prosecutors have sought the death penalty in just about every murder case where special circumstances were alleged and the victim was a white woman, but never when the victim was a minority male.
Prosecutors say the statistics are inaccurate. They point to the killing of Sheriff's Deputy Peter J. Aguirre, a Latino male, who was fatally shot while responding to a domestic disturbance last summer.
Although Quinn mentions the Aguirre case in his motion, it was not included in his 10-year analysis because the decision to seek death against his accused killer, Michael Johnson, was made only recently.
Prosecutors also say in their motion that the death penalty was sought in five out of six cases where the victim was a white female--statistics consistent with Quinn's findings.
But while Quinn argues that those numbers indicate a bias in seeking death, prosecutors say those allegations are baseless.
"The claimed statistical correlation between the charging decision and the race and gender of the victim does not prove that race or gender was the basis for the charging decision," the motion states. "A variable such as race cannot be considered in a vacuum without considering other factors."
Those "rational and justifiable" factors include egregious special circumstances, such as double murders or kidnapping and sex crimes in conjunction with murder.
For instance, prosecutors sought and received the death penalty against Tracy Cain, who killed elderly Oxnard residents Modena and William Galloway during a home robbery.
The death penalty was sought because the case involved a double murder and an attempted rape--not because of the race or gender of the victims, according to prosecutors.
The district attorney has always sought death in cases where kidnapping or carjacking were present, according to the motion. The death penalty is "usually sought" in cases in which premeditation is present, the motion also states.
It is these factors--not race or gender--that is the basis for death penalty decisions, prosecutors contend.
To bolster their argument, prosecutors filed a copy of their written criteria on the matter as well as the formal declarations from Bradbury and Chief Assistant Dist. Atty. Kevin McGee.
The motion also examines cases in which prosecutors decided not to seek death, and explains why some simply did not warrant the death penalty.
One of those is the case of John Alvez, convicted of fatally shooting a Moorpark grocery clerk in the back of the head last year before robbing the store. Prosecutors said they decided not to seek the death penalty because Alvez did not have a prior criminal record.
Quinn says the argument is inconsistent.
"My client has no prior record," Quinn said Friday.
"I haven't been unconvinced," he continued. "By definition, in every special-circumstance murder case there are aggravating factors. What happens is these things don't become as important when the victims are minority males."
Quinn wants prosecutors to open their files for further scrutiny on the issue. But prosecutors say in their motion that those files are confidential, and should remain so to encourage frank and complete evaluations of cases eligible for the death penalty.
"The prosecution would be hurt by an order to disclose its legal analysis and thought processes," the motion states. "The public would also be hurt because it would discourage prosecutors from considering and discussing all aspects of a case."
Quinn wants a hearing so he can present evidence to support his claims. And he said he wants to call Bradbury to the witness stand to testify about his declaration. The motions are set to be discussed in court on March 10.
"What it comes down to is a totally arbitrary, capricious and subjective decision by the D.A. of who should live and die," Quinn said. "I just don't have the confidence that any human being can fairly make this decision. I certainly don't have the confidence in Michael Bradbury to do it."