A new study of the use of capital punishment in Los Angeles has concluded that, throughout the administration of District Attorney Jackie Lacey (pictured) the death penalty has “discriminate[d] on the basis of race and against the poor.” The study, released June 18, 2019 by the ACLU, reported that under Lacey’s administration the Los Angeles death penalty has been imposed exclusively against defendants of color, disproportionately for killings of white victims, and disproportionately in cases handled by the worst defense lawyers. In a statement accompanying the release of the study, ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project director Cassandra Stubbs said “L.A. County is an example of everything wrong with the death penalty. Abysmal defense lawyering, geographic disparities and racial bias are the legacy of Los Angeles’ unfair and discriminatory use of the death penalty.”

The report also faults Lacey for disproportionately seeking the death penalty in cases involving white victims. Although historically only 12% of homicide victims in Los Angeles county are white, 36% of the cases in Lacey’s tenure in which death sentences have been imposed had white victims. “The pernicious role of racial bias is not new to the operation of the death penalty in Los Angeles, or California as a whole,” the report says. “Study after study has found discrimination in police and prosecutor charging practices, and in the imposition of the death penalty.”

Similar racially disproportionate sentencing patterns have been observed in other major urban areas in the United States. In Harris County (Houston), Texas—second only to Los Angeles in the size of its death row—18 of the last 19 death sentences dating back to 2004 have been imposed on defendants of color, and the sole white defendant sentenced to death was a foreign national from the Middle East. In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—which had the third largest county death row at the time of DPIC’s 2013 report, The 2% Death Penalty—44 of the last 46 defendants sentenced to death have been people of color.

The report also criticized what it described as “abysmal lawyering” by defense counsel in many of the cases in which a death sentence was imposed. A majority of capital defendants in Los Angeles are represented by a special homicide defense unit in the public defenders office but, the report said, “[t]he vast majority” of the cases in which a death sentence was imposed (19 of 22) “were handled by private appointed or retained lawyers.” In more than a third of the cases, “defendants … were represented by counsel who had prior or subsequent serious misconduct charges,” including five cases in which counsel had been or later were suspended or disbarred, two cases in which the lawyer had been placed on probation multiple times, and a case in which the lawyer currently faces multiple bar charges. In still another case, the report said, “defense counsel waived opening statements … and put on no defense at all in the guilt phase” and “repeatedly fell asleep during the guilt and penalty phases” of the trial. “[A]ll too often,” the report said, the death penalty has been “handed down to those with the worst lawyers.”

During the Lacey administration, the report says, Los Angeles County—whose death row of 222 prisoners is larger than the death rows of all but three states (California, Texas, and Florida)—has continued to impose death sentences out of proportion to the rest of the country. The report notes that Los Angeles was “one of only three counties nationwide to have more than 10 death sentences” in the five-year period from 2014–2018 and one of only four counties nationwide to impose more than one new death sentence in 2018. In that same five-year span, the county imposed more death sentences per capita than 53 of California’s 58 counties and “more death sentences per capita than any large county in Texas, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Utah, Washington, or Georgia.”

Lacey did not respond directly to the report, but issued a statement saying “California voters have twice failed to abolish the death penalty. … 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.”