Death Penalty Study: 25% of Cases From 10 Counties
by Bob Egelko, SFGate
Thursday, October 3, 2013
Out of more than 3,100 convicted murderers on death rows nationwide, over a quarter have come from just 10 counties, which include Alameda County and four others in California, a new report says.
While the annual number of death sentences in the United States is lower than it has been in about four decades, a large proportion of condemned prisoners come from a relatively small number of counties “where seeking death sentences has been a high priority,” said the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment.
From those prosecutions, “enormous costs (are) passed on to taxpayers across the state,” said the report, published Tuesday.
But any implications that Alameda County is a death penalty mill are inaccurate, said Teresa Drenick, a deputy district attorney and spokeswoman for District Attorney Nancy O’Malley.
Alameda County cases
Since January 2004, Drenick said, the office has charged 171 defendants with murders that carried a possible death sentence, but sought the death penalty in only three of those cases, none since O’Malley took office in September 2009. All three defendants were sentenced to death, she said.
The report covers death sentences from a longer period, starting in 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld death penalty laws in several states. California reinstated its death penalty in 1977 but did not execute anyone until 1992 because of appeals and court rulings.
The prominence of California counties in the study reflects both the state’s size and a court-ordered moratorium on executions. The state has the nation’s largest Death Row, with more than 740 inmates, nearly twice as many as Texas, which has executed more than 500 prisoners since 1982.
California, by contrast, has put 13 prisoners to death since 1992 and none since January 2006, when federal judges began questioning the state’s facilities, staff training and procedures for lethal injections.
L.A. tops nation
As of January 2013, the report said, Los Angeles County led the nation with 228 condemned prisoners, followed by Harris County in Texas with 101. Alameda County was ninth with 43.
The top 10 counties, which also included Riverside, Orange and San Diego, accounted for 27 percent of the nation’s death row inmates, the report said. More broadly, it said, 62 counties, 2 percent of the counties in the United States, accounted for 56 percent of the condemned prisoners, including Sacramento, which ranked 12th; Santa Clara, 18th; and San Mateo, 39th.
The report also cited a recent study suggesting race was a factor in Alameda County capital cases. According to the study by Steven Shatz, a University of San Francisco law professor, of 473 first-degree murder cases in the county between 1978 and 2001, death penalty prosecutions and death sentences were far more likely when the murder was committed in a south county community like Hayward, where the population is mostly white, than in racially mixed Oakland.
The study focused on the race of the murder victims, not the perpetrators. In south county cases, it said, where 50 percent of the victims in potential capital cases were white and 16 percent were black, county prosecutors were 2 1/2 times as likely to seek the death penalty as in north county cases, where 71 percent of the victims were black. The disparity in death penalty verdicts from juries was nearly 3-to-1.
Shatz concluded that the data should support a legal challenge to death sentences in Alameda County. Drenick, the district attorney’s spokeswoman, said the study failed to note that all capital cases in the county are tried in Oakland with juries selected countywide.
Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org