New Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón Implements Sweeping Changes in Death Penalty Policy

Just hours after taking office, newly elected Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón issued a series of sweeping changes that ended new death-penalty prosecutions and moved towards reconsidering existing death sentences in the county with the nation’s largest death row. The policy changes signaled the potential nationwide impact of local prosecutor elections in 2020, as new reform prosecutors prepare to take the helm in counties that constitute more than 11% of the country’s total death row.

Issuing a series of special directives, Gascón ushered in a new era of criminal justice reform. “In any case charged from this day forward,” Special Directive 20-11, the new Death Penalty Policy, declared, “the District Attorney’s Office will not seek the death penalty.” The directive further declared that “The District Attorney’s Office will not seek an execution date for any person sentenced to death[,] … will not defend existing death sentences and will engage in a thorough review of every existing death penalty judgment from Los Angeles County with the goal of removing the sentence of death.”

Other directives announced that the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office would no longer seek cash bail in case of misdemeanors or non-violent felonies, will not try juveniles as adults, and will not seek to enhance criminal punishments using alleged gang membership. “Punishment must be proportional and in the community’s best interest,” Gascón said during his swearing in ceremony.

The introduction to the Death Penalty Policy states that “Racism and the death penalty are inextricably intertwined.” Los Angeles County, it says, “has historically been one of the nation’s most prolific death penalty counties, and it exemplifies how racism infects death penalty proceedings.”

Gascón unseated incumbent district attorney Jackie Lacey in the November 2020 general election. The death penalty became a major issue in the district attorney’s race after a June 2019 whitepaper by the ACLU reported that “[a]ll of the 22 people who have received death sentences while Lacey has been in office are people of color. “

“The reality is the death penalty does not make us safer, it is racist, it’s morally untenable, it’s irreversible and expensive and beginning today it’s off the table in LA County,” Gascón said.

Gascón’s policies represent a marked charged from Lacey’s. His first meeting after being sworn in was with Black Lives Matter protestors, who had an antagonistic relationship with Lacey, who was often criticized for failing to police the police. “The murder of George Floyd this summer was a horrific reminder that too often our profession has failed to hold its own to the same standards we impose on the communities that we are sworn to protect and to serve,” Gascón said. “It galvanized a generation to stand up, and speak out against a system that the public largely views as a two-tiered system: one for police officers and prosecutors, and one for everyone else.”

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office is one of the most powerful county prosecuting offices in the nation, representing more than ten million people. With 225 death-row prisoners, Los Angeles has the nation’s most populous county death row. By itself, the county accounts for more than 31% of California’s death row and just under 9% of the nation’s death-row total.

Gascón headlines a crop of new reform prosecutors who won elections across the country with pledges never to seek the death penalty or to significantly reduce its use. Wins in run-off elections December 6 in Orleans Parish (New Orleans), Louisiana and Gwinnett County (Athens), Georgia topped off a year in candidates who said they would never seek death also won election in Pima County (Tucson), Arizona; Fulton County (Atlanta), Georgia; Travis County (Austin), Texas; and Multnomah County (Portland), Oregon. Newly elected prosecutors in Franklin County (Columbus), Ohio and Orange-Osceola Counties (Orlando), Florida also campaigned on sparingly using the death penalty. Collectively, the nine prosecutorial offices set local policy affecting more than 300 death-row prisoners.

“It’s completely transformative,” said consultant Natasha Minsker, a former ACLU lawyer who is a member of Gascón’s death penalty transition team. “The fact that Los Angeles County is now, as of today, going to stop pursuing death sentences and going to shift in a different direction … is a complete game changer.”

Sources

James Quealy, On first day as L.A. County D.A., George Gascón elim­i­nates bail, remakes sen­tenc­ing rules, Los Angeles Times, December 7, 2020; Christina Pascucci and John Fenoglio, George Gascón to end cash bail after being sworn in as new L.A. County DA, KTLA5, December 7, 2020; No Death Penalty In LA, No Cash Bail For Some Crimes, No Kids Tried As Adults: Big Changes As DA Gascon Sworn In, My News LA, December 7, 2020; LA County DA Gascon To Eliminate Cash Bail, Will Re-Sentence Death Penalty Inmates, CBS LA, December 8, 2020; Brakkton Booker, George Gascón Implements Sweeping Changes To Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office, NPR, December 8, 2020; Daniel Nachanian, NEWLY ELECTED PROSECUTORS ARE CHALLENGING THE DEATH PENALTY, The Appeal, December 92020.

Read the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office Special Directive 20 – 11, Death Penalty Policy.