Reform prosecutors made further inroads in the American legal system in the November 2020 general election, unseating prosecutors in several of the most prolific death-sentencing counties in the United States and capturing open seats in major Texas and Florida counties, but falling short in several other high profile races.

Election results updated on Thursday, November 5, showed that candidates pledging systemic reforms, including reduced use or abandonment of the death penalty, had won prosecutor races in Los Angeles County (CA), Travis County (Austin, TX), Orange-Osceola counties (Orlando, FL), and Franklin County (Columbus, OH). Incumbents appear to have fended off challenges in Maricopa County (Phoenix, AZ) and Hamilton County (Cincinnati, OH). The election presaged a continued reduction in capital prosecutions in the nation’s historically most prolific death-sentencing counties. Collectively, the four prosecution offices in which new progressive prosecutors prevailed had 263 prisoners on their death rows at the start of 2020, accounting for 10% of the country’s total death-row population.

Los Angeles County, California

The most high-profile race was in Los Angeles County, where former San Francisco District Attorney and former Mesa, Arizona police chief George Gascón (pictured above), was leading incumbent District Attorney Jackie Lacey. As of Thursday morning, November 5, Gascón had received 53.8% of the more than 3 million votes cast and led by a 222,000-vote margin. With 228 prisoners as of January 2020, Los Angeles’ death row is the largest of any U.S. county. It has imposed the death penalty 336 times since California reinstated the death penalty in December 1973.

Capital punishment became a significant issue in the race after the ACLU released a 2019 study that asserted Lacey’s use of capital punishment had “discriminate[d] on the basis of race and against the poor.” The ACLU reported that all 22 people sentenced to death in Los Angeles during Lacey’s tenure had been people of color and their cases had disproportionately involved killings of white victims. The report noted 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 imposed “more death sentences per capita than any large county in Texas, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Utah, Washington, or Georgia.” Lacey continued pursuing the death penalty against defendants after California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a moratorium on executions in March 2019.

Gascón challenged Lacey, portraying himself as a reform candidate looking to reduce mass incarceration. He also said he would not pursue the death penalty and would work to undo death sentences already imposed in the county. “I believe that the death penalty is immoral. The death penalty does not work; it doesn’t take care of crime,” he said on a Zoom meeting hosted by a Pasadena church in September 2020. “We know that the death penalty is irreversible. If there’s a mistake, if there’s a wrongful conviction, if someone was executed, we cannot bring them back to life.”

Maricopa County (Phoenix), Arizona

In the nation’s third-largest death row, returns tabulated throughout the day on Wednesday shifted the Maricopa County Attorney race in favor of incumbent County Attorney Allister Adel. Reform candidate Julie Gunnigle had been leading by just under 22,000 votes out of the 1.5 million ballots tallied through Wednesday morning. But with all precincts reporting Thursday morning, Adel, a Republican, was ahead by 4,186 votes, 821,845 (50.1%) to Gunnigle’s 817,659 (49.9%).

The leadership of the county attorney’s office was thrown into greater turmoil on election night when Adel was hospitalized and underwent emergency surgery for bleeding in her brain. On Thursday, she was reported in serious but stable condition.

Both candidates tried to embrace the mantle of reform, with Adel balancing support from police with attempts to distance herself from her predecessors as county attorney. Gunnigle described herself as advocating “common sense reforms” to county prosecutorial practices that her opponent tried to paint as “radical.” Maricopa County has sentenced 206 defendants to death since the 1970s, executing 11. It had 85 prisoners on its death row at the start of 2020. The county consistently ranks among the highest in the country for rates of mass incarceration.

Travis County (Austin), Texas

Former public defender José Garza won the race for Travis County district attorney with 69.8% of the vote, easily defeating Republican Martin Harry in the heavily Democratic county. The victory formalized Garza’s ascension to the district attorney’s position after he defeated incumbent District Attorney Margaret Moore in July in a run-off election for the Democratic nomination.

Garza forcefully argued for revamping the county’s prosecutorial practices, saying “[w]e use our criminal justice system like a rug that we sweep our problems underneath so we don’t have to look at them.” “We have an obligation and a responsibility to show people a different way of governing in the state of Texas,” he said. Harry criticized Garza for being too extreme.

Garza’s campaign website pledged his administration would never pursue the death penalty. “The Death Penalty is morally and ethically wrong, does not serve as a deterrent, has proven to be applied arbitrarily at best, and comes at tremendous financial costs,” his website says. Harry’s website did not address the death penalty.

Travis County has sentenced 22 people to death since Texas reinstituted the death penalty in the 1970s, executing eight prisoners — more than have been executed by 98% of U.S. counties

Frankin County, Ohio

In a county that includes Columbus and is among the 2% of counties that account for more than half of the U.S. death-row population, Democrat Gary Tyack, a retired appeals court judge and former defense lawyer who had handled capital cases, ousted incumbent County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien. O’Brien was known for personally participating in prosecution of death-penalty and other high-profile cases during his 24 years as county prosecutor.

Tyack’s website said that the death penalty should be reserved “for only the most extreme situations” and that he believes “cases will be resolved with more certainty, and in a more expeditious manner, without the death penalty being a first choice.” In campaign appearances, he suggested that O’Brien had wasted taxpayers dollars with 12 death-penalty trials that had resulted in a single death sentence and that Franklin County jurors no longer supported capital punishment.

Tyack supported a Columbus ballot issue to create a citizen oversight panel on police, while O’Brien avoided taking any position on the panel.

Franklin County has imposed the death penalty 32 times since the 1970s, with 12 prisoners on death row at the start of 2020. Ohio has executed two of the county’s prisoners.

Monique Worrell

Orange-Osceola County, Florida

Former defense lawyer Monique Worrell crushed independent Jose Torroella in the race to replace Orange-Osceola County, Florida State Attorney Aramis Ayala. With 98% of the vote counted, Worrell had received 66% of the vote. Worrell ran on a policy of criminal law reform, expressing personal opposition to the death penalty but leaving open the possibility that she would apply it in extreme cases.

Torroella billed himself as a “law and order” candidate who said he was “tired of politically correct State Attorneys who do not file charges against criminals.” He told voters, “Do not believe the mantra of ‘Criminal Justice Reform.’”

Ayala chose not to seek a second term, citing conflicts with the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling that county prosecutors did not have complete autonomy over decisions not to seek the death penalty. Early in her tenure, Ayala announced that her office would never seek the death penalty, saying it “is not in the best interests of this community or in the best interests of justice.” Then-Governor Rick Scott responded by removing Ayala’s office from 29 murder cases and reassigning them to Lake County State Attorney Brad King, an avid death-penalty supporter. The court later upheld Scott’s action.

None of the cases in which Ayala declined to press capital charges has resulted in a new death sentence.

Observers considered Worrell’s win an electoral vindication of Ayala’s policies. Worrell, who was endorsed by Ayala and Senator Bernie Sanders, said on her website that she would use “incarceration as a last resort.” She said that she is “personally opposed to the death penalty,” yet that “[t]he death penalty is the law in the State of Florida and as a prosecutor, I don’t have the right to change the law or override the law.” “I do have a responsibility to ensure that if the death penalty is sought, it is sought with the gravity that it deserves,” she said.

Other Elections

In a closely watched election in Hamilton County (Cincinnati), Ohio that was considered a referendum on reform, veteran prosecutor Joe Deters beat back a challenge to his re-election from former prosecutor and civil rights attorney, Fanon Rucker. With all precincts reporting, Deters received 52.7% of the vote. In New Orleans, no one in a four-candidate race to replace retiring Orleans Parish district attorney Leon Cannizzaro received a majority of the vote, forcing a run-off election between the top two vote getters. Keva Landrum, a prosecutor who previously served in the office under former District Attorney Harry Connick Sr., will be opposed by Jason Williams, a criminal defense attorney running as a reform prosecutor, in the December 5, 2020 runoff.

[Updated November 5 to reflect new election developments.]


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