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Prosecutors Should Stop Seeking the Death Penalty

A growing number of Americans oppose the death penalty, but prosecutors—even some who call themselves “progressive”—continue to seek it. All prosecutors should stop pursuing and protecting capital convictions.  

SAN QUENTIN, CA – MARCH 13: In this handout photo provided by California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, San Quentin’s death lethal injection facility is shown before being dismantled at San Quentin State Prison on March 13, 2019 in San Quentin, California. California Governor Gavin Newsom announced today a moratorium on California’s death penalty. California has 737 people on death row, the largest death row population in the United States. (Photo by California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation via Getty Images)

The Point

A growing number of Americans oppose the death penalty, but prosecutors—even some who call themselves “progressive”—continue to seek it. All prosecutors should stop pursuing and protecting capital convictions.  

Prosecutors should end capital punishment: 

  • Prosecutors should no longer seek the death penalty. When prosecutors seek the death penalty, they contribute to a system of punishment that is disproportionately wielded against Black people, poor people, and people who have suffered from abuse, trauma, or mental illness. 
  • Prosecutors should stop opposing challenges to death sentences. Prosecutors who recognize the fundamental injustice of capital punishment should not expend resources defending a predecessor’s poor judgment in pursuing it.
  • Prosecutors should seek resentencing for those on death row from their jurisdictions. For example, Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón has promised to seek resentencing for the more than 200 people on death row from Los Angeles County.  
  • Prosecutors should stop asking for execution dates. Despite signing an open letter in opposition to the federal death penalty, Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot has twice sought to set an execution date for Charles Flores, who recently filed a petition for a new trial based, in part, on claims of actual innocence. 

The death penalty is arbitrary, racist, and unjust: 

  • Whether someone is sentenced to death has become more a function of the prosecutor on their case than the severity of their crime. Supreme Court Justice Breyer noted this in his dissenting opinion in Glossip v. Gross: “Between 2004 and 2009, for example, just 29 counties (fewer than 1% of counties in the country) accounted for approximately half of all death sentences imposed nationwide. And in 2012, just 59 counties (fewer than 2% of counties in the country) accounted for all death sentences imposed nationwide.” 
  • Prosecutors purport to only seek the death penalty for the “worst of the worst,” but this subjective standard is belied by data. Every person executed in 2020 had a significant mental or emotional impairment or had committed the offense before reaching 21 years of age. And several individuals who were executed had a more culpable co-defendant who received a lesser sentence, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in its 2020 year-end report.
  • Racial discrimination drives capital punishment. Numerous studies show that a person is more likely to be sentenced to death if they are Black or if their victim is white. DPIC’s report, “Enduring Injustice: The Persistence of Racial Discrimination in the U.S. Death Penalty,” further explores racial disparities in the death penalty system and connects it to America’s history of racial injustice.
  • “Justice demands consistency and it’s not consistent to have such overwhelmingly differing ends of punishment in a system that says it’s about treating all fairly regardless of their background,” explained Fanon Rucker to The Appeal: Political Report when he was running against Joe Deters for Hamilton County Prosecuting Attorney. Deters, having sent more people to death row than any other prosecutor in Ohio, is a prime example of this country’s “personality-driven” death penalty.

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