Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Death Penalty in Los Angeles

This applies directly to me, so I'll be the first (that I know of) to write about it.

The LA District Attorney's office is getting out of control in the number and type of cases that they seek the death penalty on. There has been a change leadership on the Special Circumstances Committee (the group that decides whether to seek the death penalty or not on special circumstance cases), and the new leadership is apparently committed to seeking the death penalty more frequently, in line with their political beliefs that more people should be sentenced to death as a matter of course.

The most egregious example of this is the case of Juan Alvarez, who tried to kill himself by putting his car in the path of an oncoming train. Whatever you may think about Alvarez and his admittedly stupid actions, how they merit a potential death sentence is completely beyond me. Considering that the death penalty is meant for the worst of the worst, for those who are just so evil and depraved that they have forfeited their right to live in even the indecent society of prison, how can a person who, by all accounts, only wanted to harm himself, be put in that category. How many times do cars get hit by trains without causing anything more than a few bumps or bruises for the people on the train, while killing the driver of the vehicle. The fact that this one time the unthinkable happened does not in any way merit a death sentence. This is the intersection of law and politics at it's worse (and is an argument for doing away with the death penalty altogether - in that having political considerations decide whether someone lives or dies is reprehensible).

But, that case is not alone. In my conversations with many people around the courthouse, DAs and defense lawyers alike, I have discerned a trend that the death penalty is being sought in much greater numbers with the change of the committee. Cases that in the past would never merit seeking death, let alone receive a death sentence, are now being treated as death cases (whether they actually succeed in getting death in many of these cases remains to be seen, and won't be known for another year or two).

Now, let's say you like the death penalty, and think that it isn't sought frequently enough - fair enough. But, let's see this through. I have one death penalty case right now, as do a few of my collegues. This death case has begun to crowd out my other cases, in that it will begin to take more and more time to prepare for than if the prosecution had just sought a punishment of life in prison without the possibility of parole. In fact, if they were not seeking death, I would not even be on the case - the only reason I got on it was to work with another person who was already on the case but unable to go it alone. So, at some point, 2 lawyers are going to be working on this case close to full time, preparing for nearly a year for this case to go to trial. What happens to all of my other cases at this time? Well, I will have to have less cases, which means that they will have to go to someone else. But, you can't give too many cases to other people, so we will have to promote more people to felonies to handle these cases. If you promote more people to felonies, you need to train them, which requires resources, and you need to promote them, which means more money. And you need to replace them, which requires more hires. Thus, just because of my one case, perhaps you'll need to hire another 2 or 3 lawyers to pick up the slack.

And that's just one case. The prosecution is seeking death in a bunch more cases than usual. What if they have 10 more death cases in my office than they normally would have? This could mean 20 extra lawyers to pick up the slack. And then you have to deal with the paralegals that need to get hired to pick up the extra work on these cases. Of course, an investigator needs to work on the case, and they will be more tied up on that case than on your typical case, so maybe we'll need a couple more investigators for those cases. And don't forget, we'll have to travel much further afield than normal to investigate penalty, which is a more intensive investigation than just investigating the guilt phase (this is becuase you have to investigate the person's background, their childhood, youth, etc... which means you need to go to where they're from and track down their family, which can often require people to go places around the country, or even overseas). Are you still adding up the costs?

Don't forget about the extra experts that are needed in such a case, just for penalty. You need to look at the organic history of the person (do they have brain damage, mental retardation, other mental, psychological, psychiatric or physiological problems?). This may require things like shrinks, doctors, MRIs, PetScans and other potentially expensive tests. The state (ie - you, the taxpayer) pays for this. The DA's office probably needs extra resources on all of these cases, I don't know first hand, but I can guess extra investigators, attorneys, paralegals, and other resources. They'll also need to conduct their own testing if any of the defense testing shows anything of consequence.

These cases strain the courts more as well. They require more money for things like daily transcripts, longer trials, overtime for court staff to handle the extra work, court reporters charge by the page and per copy, so when you look at long transcripts with at least 3 copies (if there is only one defendant, it goes up more for each extra defendant), you are looking at a lot of money. One court reporter I know made over $10,000 (above and beyond salary, this is for just the transcripts) for transcribing a 3 week/3 defendant prelim. And that wasn't even a death penalty case. I can assure you that the prelim would've been twice as long if it had been a death penalty case (again, you do the math).

I have no idea about the costs of appeal, except to say that they are much more expensive than incarcerating the person for life.

So, let's assume you really want to kill a few more people, rather than put them away in solitary confinement for the rest of their lives. In other words, they are already getting a death sentence, the only question is how long before they die, and how naturally or unnaturally they die. Of course, they will probably live for another 20 years before execution, as well. Is it that important that their life ends a few years earlier by the hands of the state that you spend so many extra millions of dollars to do it? So that you can execute someone who was trying to kill themselves on the train tracks?

If you really think it's that important, I suggest you raise your own taxes by a few hundred a month to pay for it, donate that money, it's so important to you. I'm getting some of that money, so thanks in advance.


Anonymous said...

Considering that the death penalty is meant for the worst of the worst, for those who are just so evil and depraved that they have forfeited their right to live in even the indecent society of prison, how can a person who, by all accounts, only wanted to harm himself, be put in that category.


The evidence thus far indicates otherwise. This defendent was not trying to harm himself. He was in fact staging the scene to make it appear he had committed suicide, knowing the train would probably derail (the more spectacular, the better). This is why the Complaint was amended.

PD Dude said...

Well, I have seen none of that evidence, and I am suspiciuos of revisionist attempts by police and prosecution to make it that way. It's hard to make a bogeyman out of someone just trying to kill themselves, and makes for a much more difficult case. Any attempt on their part to turn him, even incorrectly, into a monster, is suspect with me unless they have something really strong that was kept secret from all press accounts.

Constance Reader said...

This raises an interesting question: if a defendant is demonstrably suicidal, and is facing the death penalty, could a defense attorney argue that since the client wants to die, he is unable to assist in his own defense and thus incompetent?

I am not an attorney but just curious as to what the answer might be. I understand that the answer might vary some from state to state, depending on the legal definition of incompetence in a given jurisdiction.

Anonymous said...

I believe facing the death penalty for trying to kill yourself is very wrong.

"How many times do cars get hit by trains without causing anything more than a few bumps or bruises for the people on the train, while killing the driver of the vehicle."

I don't think this is a valid argument as his gross negligence would endanger many other peoples lives. The potential to cause a number of deaths is there by his own doing. He was a nats wisker from causing this (40 deaths - 200 injured)

However, as you say, a death sentence is still not appropriate.

PD Dude said...

Lennie - You are more correct than you thought - the article you linked to was the incident I wrote about in my post. I don't think that 40 people died, though.

Anonymous said...

every one deserves to live no matter what even if they are a murder Death penalty sucks

Bag said...

Interesting couple of points you raised there. I won't get involved in the debate because I'm in the UK and against the death penalty in principle.

The area I found interesting and it kind of confirms that western justice. US and UK, is the best you can afford was reference to increased workload for death penalty cases. If you have to expand your workforce to get resources to support the work on death penalty cases then that means that life imprisonment cases don't get the same attention. Thus there must be only a certain defence that can be built with limited resources and therefore increased guilty verdicts. No issue with your work but as it is spread across more cases you have less time than a private defender will have. Therefore innocents that are poorer have less chance of justice.

Do you prioritise death penalty cases based on pleas or clear guilt? For example, a clearly guilty murderer who admits their guilt and is going to plead guilty to the death penalty, do you invest as much time with building a case for them?