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Perhaps Not Equal, but It's Just

January 10, 2001

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, in office little more than a month, confirmed last week that he has implemented a major policy shift: The county's top prosecutor is seeking life sentences--rather than the death penalty--in certain murder charges involving foreigners. This change should encourage extradition from countries that do not have capital punishment.

Cooley's policy is aimed at ending the stalemates that have allowed some suspects wanted for murders committed in the county to remain at large in Mexico, Canada and other countries that refuse to impose the death penalty.

State law hands prosecutors wide latitude in charging, allowing them to ask juries for either death or a life term in especially heinous murders. Cooley's action lets prosecutors go after suspects who have sought refuge abroad, possibly putting behind bars for life individuals who might otherwise evade punishment altogether. And as Cooley noted, a life term without the possibility of parole is "serious justice."

The new directive makes sense. Even with aggressive prosecution and strong evidence, the road to lethal injection is long. More than 500 inmates sit on California's death row, and in 35 years there have been only nine executions. Those numbers indicate that a state death sentence has become, de facto, a life term. But there can be no sentence, no punishment, if the suspect flees to a country that refuses extradition for possible capital prosecution.

The district attorney's new policy may raise cries of unequal treatment--defendants apprehended here may face the death penalty while accomplices or those charged with similar offenses may cheat the executioner by crossing the border. Yet the current disparities are more extreme, with some suspects evading punishment altogether. The real answer is to rethink the death penalty. In the meantime Cooley is right to embrace a practical approach.

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