Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. (pictured), the “Golden State Killer,” whom prosecutors had one year earlier held out as a “poster child for the death penalty,” has pleaded guilty to 13 counts each of murder and rape in exchange for multiple life sentences.

At a June 29, 2020 hearing, the 74-year-old former police officer admitted to a total of 161 crimes involving 48 victims, including dozens of rapes that could not be charged because the statute of limitations on prosecuting them had long ago expired. The hearing was conducted in a Sacramento State University ballroom converted into a makeshift courtroom to permit social distancing of the 150 people who attended the proceedings.

Prosecutors from the six California counties affected by DeAngelo’s crime spree — who one year earlier had used DeAngelo’s case to deride Governor Gavin Newsom’s decision to declare a moratorium on executions in California —unanimously agreed to abandon the death penalty in the case in favor of a plea deal under which DeAngelo will receive 11 life sentences. A formal sentencing hearing is scheduled for August 17.

On April 10, 2019, prosecutors from the six counties announced they would seek the death penalty against DeAngelo, whom DNA testing had linked to 13 murders and at least 50 rapes in the 1970s and 1980s. They convened a press conference the next day to attack the death penalty moratorium, with Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer declaring that “Governor Newsom took a knife and stabbed all the victims and all the victims’ families in the heart.” Ron Harrington — whose brother was murdered and sister-in-law was raped and murdered — called the accused Golden State Killer “the worst of the worst of the worst ever. He is the poster child for the death penalty.”

The age of the crimes was a major factor in the prosecutors’ decision to accept a plea deal and avoid the lengthy legal process of a death-penalty case. Many of the surviving witnesses were elderly and at increased risk from the COVID-19 virus if they participated in court proceedings. Death-penalty critics had argued that a capital prosecution of DeAngelo would be a waste of court time and taxpayer money because he would certainly die long before California’s decades-delayed capital appeals process would be completed. In addition, investigators from the scandal-plagued Orange County sheriff’s office had reportedly smuggled 37 boxes and two bins of statewide evidence in the case out of the sheriff’s office in 2016, giving them to a true-crime author and creating potential chain-of-custody issues for the evidence if the case went to trial.

At the hearing and in statements to the media afterwards, the prosecutors stressed the importance of justice and closure for victims and their families, some who had waited as long as 45 years. “The family members of murder victims have waited decades for justice,” Sacramento County Deputy District Attorney Amy Holliday said. “The time for justice stands in front of us now.”

“This has been a very long journey for justice,” Sacramento County DA Anne Marie Schubert said, sharing the story of one murder victim’s sister who said DeAngelo’s arrest brought her a sense of safety she had lacked for decades. “After 32 years, she could finally unlock her bedroom door.” Schubert, who had co-authored an op-ed in April 2019 calling the death penalty moratorium “a slap in the face to crime victims and their families,” said “[t]he most compelling reason [to accept the plea agreement] was to provide finality for all the victims and their families.” Quoting Ventura County District Attorney Gregory Totten, Schubert said the plea deal means “‘Mr. DeAngelo will die in prison as a convict, not an accused.’”

Spitzer reiterated his belief that DeAngelo was the “poster child” for the death penalty, but said he agreed to the plea deal because “all the family members of the four Orange County murder victims … agreed this was the best thing.” Spitzer said that DeAngelo “never would have admitted to the crimes” without the plea agreement and called the admissions “significant.”

DeAngelo had evaded arrest for more than three decades, but investigators used new forensic techniques to identify him in 2018. Using DNA from crime scenes, they found a distant relative in the DNA database of a genealogy website, then traced the family tree to DeAngelo. They confirmed his identity with DNA samples from his car door and a discarded tissue.

While he was alone in a police interrogation room, DeAngelo was recorded confessing to the crimes. “I did all that,” he said. He continued speaking, apparently blaming the crimes on an alternate personality or inner demon. “I didn’t have the strength to push him out,” he said. “He made me. He went with me. It was like in my head, I mean, he’s a part of me. I didn’t want to do those things. I pushed Jerry out and had a happy life. I did all those things. I destroyed all their lives. So now I’ve got to pay the price.”