San Quentin State Prison's execution chamber. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
The number of death sentences issued in California dropped this year to 10, one of the lowest levels since the state reinstated capital punishment in 1978.
The decline, from 29 in each of the last two years, may signal that the decades-long appeals process for capital convictions and a 6-year-old moratorium on executions have encouraged prosecutors to seek life sentences without the possibility of parole in more murder cases.
California's less frequent resort to the death penalty puts it roughly in line with a national trend that has seen such sentences decline by 75% in the last 15 years.
Legal analysts on both sides of the debate say a broken appeals process is driving the trend. Prosecutors faced with tight budgets have had to make tough choices about the time and money needed to pursue a death sentence, while some family members of murder victims have pressed them to pursue the swifter justice of lifelong imprisonment with no chance of getting out.
W. Scott Thorpe, head of the California District Attorneys Assn., said he couldn't be sure what drove the state's 66% drop in death sentences this past year. He noted that there has been a statewide decline in homicides and that local economic and public safety circumstances influence the 58 independently elected county district attorneys.
Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley secured four of the five death sentences he sought in murder prosecutions this year and 53 sentences of life without parole. L.A. County had eight death sentences last year and 13 the year before.
Cooley declined to attribute the lower number of capital prosecutions to economic concerns.
Some of the decrease in death sentences can be attributed to the electoral success of district attorney candidates who pledged to be more discerning in deciding which homicides should be prosecuted as capital cases. Riverside County imposed just two death sentences this year, compared with six in 2010. Dist. Atty. Paul Zellerbach said he is reviewing 56 capital cases that were pending when he took office in January.
"There's no question that the more capital cases you have, which require more work and effort on everyone's part, the more resources you're going to have to allocate to those cases. That's just a reality," said Zellerbach. "But that's not going to deter me from prosecuting a capital case if I believe the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors."
Zellerbach said he has told prosecutors that any case in which the death penalty is sought must be completed within three years, a resource-management edict that will cause a reduction in the volume of capital cases.
Legal experts who monitor capital punishment say the budget cuts imposed on local governments across the state have played a role in discouraging prosecutors from seeking the death penalty.
"It would be stunning if prosecutors were not impacted by these developments. The financial issues just have to weigh significantly in some cases because prosecutors, defense lawyers and everyone involved in government in California has had to make extraordinarily difficult choices about how to spend the resources they have, and they are well aware of what capital cases cost," said Elisabeth Semel, a UC Berkeley law professor and founder of the school's death penalty clinic.
"Like every other state and county office, the district attorney's offices are feeling the pinch of the budget crisis and are painfully aware of how limited their resources are. They may be making different choices because of that," said Paula Mitchell, a Loyola Law School professor and coauthor of a study this year that estimated the cost of maintaining capital punishment in California since 1978 at $4 billion.
Mitchell and U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Arthur L. Alarcon estimated that the state spends $184 million a year on its death row inmates while the prospects for resuming executions recede amid complex legal challenges.
Those who support maintaining the death penalty as a sentencing option express frustration with a system that has carried out only 13 executions in 34 years.
"The fact that executions aren't being carried out has a discouraging effect" on prosecutors' willingness to push for a death penalty, said Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. The time and cost of prosecution and appeals continue to increase "as defendants and defense lawyers drag things out," he said.
Scheidegger said the state needs to keep the death penalty as an option because it causes some defendants to plead guilty in exchange for life without parole, leverage that wouldn't exist without the threat of execution.