Three-fourths of California’s elected district attorneys refused to disclose how they choose defendants to face the death penalty, says a report to the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice quoted by the Los Angeles Times. Pepperdine Law School professors conducting the survey believe that many prosecutors “acted in concert in deciding to refuse participation” and expressed dismay at the lack of candor. The lack of response paints “a distressing picture of the willingness of those who tinker with the machinery of the death penalty to expose their decision-making process to the electorate,” the professors said.
California law reserves the death penalty for certain crimes and aggravating circumstances considered particularly grievous — such as multiple victims, the use of a bomb, the killing of a police officer or a potential witness or a murder committed in the course of a rape, robbery, or carjacking. It is up to the state’s 58 county district attorneys to decide whether to seek death in individual cases. The California attorney general’s office, which defends death sentences on appeal in state and federal courts, warned prosecutors that revealing how capital defendants are chosen could threaten not a particular case, but rather constitutional challenges filed in “almost all” death penalty cases. Susan Everingham, a criminal justice researcher with the Rand Corp., said her attempts to gather meaningful information on the costs of the death penalty in California had been frustrated. Attorneys for prosecutors and the defense don’t keep track of the hours they spend on particular cases, and reconstructing the data would be costly, she said.