Leonardo Cisneros’s attorney was accused of sleeping during his death penalty trial. During Rudy Anthony Ruiz’s capital trial, his attorney was facing disbarment.
These cases are not an anomaly, charges a report released yesterday by the American Civil Liberties Union. Rather, the report says, they typify the type of person who has ended up on death row—and the type of legal defense they get—during the tenure of Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey.
Since Lacey took office in 2012, 22 people have been sentenced to death from Los Angeles County, and the similarities across their cases are striking. All 22 are people of color, according to the report: 13 Latinx, eight Black, and one Asian. And, even though 12 percent of homicide victims in Los Angeles between 2000 and 2015 were white, 36 percent of those sent to death row killed at least one white victim, the report found. Eight of the 22 were represented by counsel who have been charged with misconduct; lawyers involved in five of those cases were disbarred or suspended. “Abysmal lawyering has long been a predictor of who will actually receive the death penalty,” writes the report’s author, Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project.
“The death penalty in America is impossible to separate from America’s legacy of racism, violence, and lynching,” said Jeffery Robinson, ACLU deputy legal director and director of the Trone Center for Justice and Equality. “This system is bankrupt. Completely bankrupt.”
Lacey maintained that race is not a factor in her prosecutors’ deliberations and defended their process in determining who they would ask the state to kill.
“As long as the death penalty remains legal in California, a committee of diverse prosecutors will review these cases using one of the most extensive review processes in the nation and make recommendations based on the facts without regard to the race of a defendant or a victim,” Lacey said in a statement emailed to The Appeal.
However, the data contradicts Lacey’s assertion, said Robinson. “The most important aggravating factor in the case is the race of the victim,” he said. “The second most important aggravating factor is the race of the defendant.”
Since 2012, the year Lacey took office, only Riverside County has sent more people to California’s death row than Los Angeles, according to the ACLU’s report. In fact, as death penalty prosecutions have declined nationwide, Riverside and Los Angeles are two of the only three counties in the country to sentence more than 10 people to death from 2014 to 2018, according to the report. Almost a third of the 723 people on death row in California are from Los Angeles—more than any other county, according to the ACLU’s report.
“Los Angeles County is one of the largest killers in the country when it comes to imposition of the death penalty,” said Robinson.
Within California, the politics of criminal justice and the death penalty seem to be shifting. In March, Governor Gavin Newsom announced a moratorium on executions, stating that he would not oversee any while in office. His executive order, however, stops short of preventing prosecutors from seeking the death penalty or juries and judges from imposing it. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times published in March, after the moratorium was announced, Newsom was considering how to stop prosecutors from pursuing death penalty prosecutions.
But unless further action is taken, the next governor will have the opportunity to reopen the death chamber at San Quentin. The people currently on death row are still serving a death sentence but one that, as long as Newsom is governor, will not be carried out. And yet, Newsom’s moratorium is not a deterrent for Lacey, who has said her office will continue to seek death sentences.
“I will follow the law as prescribed by the citizens of California—whether that is seeking the death penalty for the most heinous crimes or, with the abolition of the death penalty, life without parole,” said Lacey in her emailed statement.
A majority of California district attorneys plan to move forward with death penalty prosecutions, despite the moratorium, according to Michele Hanisee, president of Los Angeles County’s Association of Deputy District Attorneys. Newsom has imposed his will over the will of Californians, said Hanisee, noting that voters have twice rejected ballot initiatives to abolish the death penalty and that, in 2016, they passed a referendum that would expedite executions.
“I think it is confusing to the public, but I think the public is also seeing that the governor is taking a unilateral action in spite of existing law,” she said. “It is not the place of the governor to make decisions about what is and is not the law.”
But even if executions do not occur under Newsom, advocates say as long as the specter of the death penalty looms over prosecutions, it will continue to corrupt the already deeply flawed California legal system.
For instance, to sit on a jury in a capital case, a juror must be willing to impose the death penalty. Stubbs noted that this qualification is particularly troubling in Los Angeles where a majority of voters voted to abolish the death penalty in the 2012 and 2016 ballot referendums. The very process of seeking the death penalty, self-selects jurors who are more likely to support a conviction and a death sentence, she added.
“Every jury is skewed,” Stubbs told The Appeal. “We know in Los Angeles that’s going to be a minority of the jurors [who support the death penalty]. Most of the community is excluded from trial.”
Even before trial, the threat of the death penalty can be used to illicit guilty pleas, according to advocates. “There’s incredible coercion against folks to take pleas even though they may be innocent,” said Stubbs.
Going to trial becomes a “terrible roulette game,” agreed Peter Brooks, a professor at Princeton University. “You get put in the position where you feel you have to plead to some sort of offense, come up with some sort of a confession in order to not be put to death,” Brooks said. “If you don’t go along with the story we’re proposing, we’re going to kill you.”
The death penalty also normalizes extreme sentences, said Stubbs. For instance, the California ballot referendums offered voters the choice between life without parole or the death penalty, even though both sentences condemn people to death, one by incarceration and one by execution. More than 40,000 people—or about 30 percent of the prison population—are serving life or virtual life sentences in California, according to a report by the Sentencing Project released in 2017.
To curtail extreme sentences, the death penalty must be abolished, said Stubbs. “When we talk about the death penalty as an acceptable punishment, it’s fundamentally dehumanizing and sets up this framework of people as being outside redemption,” said Stubbs. “In that kind of excessive punishment system we can understand life without parole as a punishment that is not so bad because it is not as bad as the the death penalty.”
Lacey’s record on the death penalty, Stubbs said, is part of a larger, growing agitation for prosecutor accountability. In 2020, she will be up for election, and two challengers have already announced their intentions to run.
“Unfair and discriminatory,” said Stubbs. “That’s the legacy of District Attorney Lacey’s death penalty in Los Angeles. I think it’s important that LA voters hold her to account for that.”