Jan 16, 2021 by Colman McCarthy
It was on one of the many adventuresome times in the 1990s that I took my students to visit death row inmates in Virginia’s Mecklenburg Correctional Center that I came to know and admire Marie Deans. Her 30-plus year ministry to the condemned included finding pro bono lawyers to file post-conviction habeas appeals and comforting them in their spare cells in the final hours of living, before being electrocuted or drugged to death by the state. (For complete article click here.)
The Trump Administration has resumed federal executions after a 17-year hiatus. I witnessed the latest one
By Elizabeth Brunig, The New York Times, December 17, 2020
TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — On Thursday evening, I sat in the lobby of a Marriott hotel in Terre Haute, Ind., as Shawn Nolan and Victor Abreu tried to save a man’s life. Both wore bluejeans, button-down shirts and a day or more of scruff — Mr. Nolan’s salt-and-pepper, Mr. Abreu’s black. We shared a bottle of red wine in plastic cups as the two men, public defenders whose caseloads are strictly death penalty appeals, discussed the merits of pleading with the Supreme Court for a stay of execution.
“Days of life matter,” Mr. Nolan had reflected as we spoke earlier that afternoon.
Their work, never light, had recently increased. After a 17-year hiatus, the Department of Justice had resumed federal executions in July, wedging 10 deaths into the latter half of the final year of President Trump’s term. Two of those inmates were their clients. Click here for full story.
January 8, 2021
12:30 p.m. – 1:30 p.m. ESTLocation: Online
Join CMN for a series of Virtual Prayer Vigils in January 2021 as the federal government prepares to execute Corey Johnson and Dustin Higgs.
Virtual Vigil for Corey Johnson (Federal)
Thursday, Jan. 14 | 2-3 p.m. EST
Virtual Vigil for Dustin Higgs (Federal)
Friday, Jan. 15 | 2-3 p.m. EST
NOTE: The execution of Lisa Montgomery, previously scheduled for Jan. 12, has been put on hold by a federal judge.
Q&A: Patrisse Cullors in conversation with incumbent Los Angeles DA, Jackie Lacey
Tuesday, October 20, 2020
Patrisse Cullors, for Prism Reports and Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter
Ahead of the election for Los Angeles district attorney, I sat down with both candidates to learn more about where they stand on the issues and how they see the role of the DA. In this conversation, I spoke with Jackie Lacey, the current district attorney for Los Angeles County. Read more about the race here, and read my interview with candidate George Gascon here.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Patrisse Cullors: Thank you for taking the time to have this conversation with me, DA Lacey. I am very excited to be able to talk to you and know your thoughts on the race and your role as a DA as we are just weeks away from this election.
Jackie Lacey: I appreciate the opportunity to talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly. I’m looking forward to your questions.
Cullors: So, the first question is super generic, but I would love your candid thoughts. What does a district attorney do and what is their role in advancing justice and equity? Why has this race, in your opinion, been called the second most important race in the country next to the presidency?
Lacey: Most people don’t realize what we do. That’s the biggest problem in educating voters. Most people won’t come in contact with the criminal justice system and in some respects, that’s a good thing, but in some respects, it’s a bad thing because the only thing they hear about is maybe after a case is filed or is not filed. So, as a DA, I see our role as seeking justice, more so than anything. Cases come into us, police reports come into us, and it’s our job as experts in the law to determine whether a crime was committed and whether this is the right person who committed the crime and is filing the case the right thing to do. All of those things are sort of a checklist in your mind; you have to look at all of those things and make a determination.
In terms of the district attorney of LA County, I really see myself and anyone who has this job as a trendsetter, as a leader, and that goes into why this is the second most important race [in the country]. People come from all over the United States and all over the world to study what we do, how we do it, and why we do what we do. In turn, we send people throughout the world to train them on areas that might be foreign. So, for instance, I sent a team of people to Uganda in 2019 because we were asked to come and teach prosecutors how to plea bargain. There, you stay in jail or prison for long periods of time. And so, we’re to be the leaders. As the head of that office, you’re supposed to influence the criminal justice system, and you’re supposed to do it in a careful way where you can never forget the victims, right, because our role is to think about the victims and their rights.
Cullors: Thank you for that. The second question I have for you is, what are your top three policy priorities or reforms you would implement as soon as you’re reelected here in one of the largest counties in the U.S.? The more specific for readers, the better.
Lacey: Okay, so the first thing I know that’s going to happen is the voters will decide whether to repeal SB 10, bail reform. So, I’m already thinking ahead. What will that look like? Should we just go ahead and do bail reform, the way we’ve been doing it the last few months, if Prop. 25 ends up repealing SB 10? If not, then we’ve got to really get in gear and figure out what risk assessment tool we’re going to use from here on out. So that’s the first thing I’ll be thinking about if reelected.
The second thing is, they’re closing down what used to be called DJJ, the state juvenile justice system, and they’re going to shift the incoming juveniles who would have gone to the state facility to the county. So I’ll be thinking about how can we pivot because we’ve been doing juvenile justice a certain way for the last eight years, but we’ll need to pivot and think about how to get more services because the juveniles we’re talking about at the state level are going to be people who are charged with more serious crimes and will be in need of more serious services. I know the county is hurting. They don’t have a lot of money, probation has been criticized, and probation will have the responsibility for that. So, I really want to focus in on what we can do differently for the juvenile population that we’re going to suddenly have in this county for a very short period of time. Up until now, I’ve paid more attention to adults and mental health, but as you know, the onset of mental health can come way before the age of 18, so I’ll be thinking about starting a new committee to study juvenile justice and mental health with the goal being: How do we prevent people from even getting involved in the justice system? How do we prevent them from getting involved in the first place, but also how do we prepare these juveniles that we have so that they can safely reenter society and not go back to whatever lead them to come into the juvenile justice system?
I hope to publish an update on the blueprint for change. A lot still needs to be done, but I want to see if we need to adjust those goals. What I’ve learned from this campaign, Patrisse, is that campaigning is actually very healthy for you because in the DAs office, you tend to listen to people who are on staff. But when you’re out campaigning, you get advice and opinions from people outside of the office. And so I really want to form a very thoughtful blue ribbon commission to look at how we’ve been doing things in the DAs office and provide some advice and suggestions for what we could do differently, how we could do better in terms of the recidivism rates, what can we do about the police shootings, [examine] why are these cases so problematic, is there a different model [for addressing them]?
Those would be the top three things, then also dealing with having less people to work with because of the budget. We were already down about 200 people in terms of staff, and we really don’t see our hiring freeze being lifted anytime soon.
Cullors: Got it. That’s super helpful. The next question is one that really comes out of the current movement at both the local and national level around the prosecution of law enforcement. As you know, police killings aren’t specific to Los Angeles, but it’s an issue that has been lifted up pretty profoundly by not just BLM LA, but lots of organizers and lots of concerned people about why law enforcement is seemingly unable to be prosecuted for acts of violence in the community.
For me, this question is absolutely pointed at you, but it’s not a question to make you feel defensive. I really want to hear you be reflective, because I think it’s going to be helpful for voters. There’s been 622 documented killings at the hands of law enforcement and there has been only one filed case, one charge, in your years as DA. How do you think that that can be shifted? Is that a place of importance for you? How do we justify that many killings and not as many prosecutions? I am curious from a journalist’s perspective, but also from a human being perspective, what limits you from being able to prosecute law enforcement who kills, and if you’re reelected, is there room to have a different shape around prosecution of law enforcement?
Lacey: This too, obviously, is extremely important to me on many different levels. I live with this issue, day in and day out. From the minute I got in, though I have never had any experience trying [these cases], I knew from sitting in on meetings, how—and I’m not sure if this is the right term—how emotionally invested you must be in looking at these cases, because you know that not only is the public looking at you, but the people you lead are putting on the case. And they’re telling you what happened and they’re going through the law and they’re telling you what the legal analysis is and the emotional analysis in your heart is, “These people didn’t have to die. If I had been there, this is what I would have done. Couldn’t they have just let the person go? How could you make a mistake and think that that was a weapon?”
Those kinds of things all go through your mind, and as an elected prosecutor your life flashes before you because you realize that no matter what call you make, your job is in jeopardy in each and every case. On top of that, you’re very much aware that there are people in the room who are prosecutors who are looking up to you and wondering, what are you going to do? Will you make the political call and save yourself, or will you follow the law? And will you follow the law automatically, or are you pissed off about what you’re seeing? And so, our numbers, I had them counted up. There were 341 people who have died by officer-involved shootings, and then we have another 20 to 30 who have died either of drug overdose, or asphyxiation, or suicide, and those are contested.
I’m going to meet with a family this week and it’s probably the toughest meeting I’m going to have because they don’t believe their daughter committed suicide in police custody, and yet my evidence shows that she did. And rather than convince them, I’m just gonna listen to their pain because if something happened to my daughter, I think I’d want to die. So, the issue, as I see it is right in the code. It allows police officers to use deadly force and nowhere in the code does it say that unless it says you need to defend yourself as a civilian. So, there’s a different law for police officers, and then the way our system is set up, they do their own internal affairs investigation and that most of the time the interviews are taped. I would say 99% of the time you listen to them [and] some of them are good. Some are not so good because they’re leading and suggestive, but you’re stuck with their investigation of their own.
Early on when we started hearing these interviews, I suggested to law enforcement, “Hey, why don’t you have the sheriff do the LAPD, and the LAPD do the sheriff this year?” because the sheriff does do some investigations of independent agencies. They were very resistant to that, and what I got from the chief and from the sheriff at the time were, “Well, we do things our own way. We handle our investigations our own way. Ours are different.” And it’s true. They are different. So I think if there was a standardized independent investigation, with [a] set out protocol [and] best practices—do you show the officer the body camera video first, or do you get the statement first?—things along those lines, I think would really help.
The other thing is in certain cases where the community has a lot of interest in a case because the person is unarmed or appeared not to be armed, the AG ought to be able to step in and take some of those cases. Not that I’m saying I can’t be biased, but perceptions become my reality. So, there are those things. Those two things. And then I also think, training. Every, every police officer in every department should be trained on de-escalating a situation—and we’ve done that. We’ve trained about 2,000 first responders and we have seen the officer-involved shootings go down when they receive this training because the training is so different from the training they’re getting right now, Patrisse. Right now they’re being trained command and control, and clearly, when you have someone in an altered state [due to] either mental health or substance abuse, sometimes just backing off a little bit, giving a little bit more time, the person will start to cycle through and calm down as opposed to trying to control someone. So those are the simple changes I think should be made: one, an independent investigative force [where the] AG takes over some of the more problematic cases, and mandatory de-escalation training for everybody who carries a gun.
Cullors: Thank you so much for that. I want to ask two more questions for you and would love to hear about what policies and our laws are you most proud of helping to pass or help get signed into law, either at the state legislature at the local level, to improve the lives of children and working families and LA County.
Lacey: I’m cycling through all the stuff in my mind that we’ve been involved in. I think I’m most proud of the laws that we have passed in order to make it easy for people to get conservatorships, because most of the time I hear from family members and it’s heartbreaking. They have adults who don’t necessarily want to accept that they have a mental health issue. So, they’ve been really small, almost barely noticeable, but important laws, like for instance, conservatorships used to stop if you got arrested—the process would just stop. And so, we changed the law—because it didn’t make sense—so that it would continue on. Also, if you were on parole or probation, you couldn’t get mental health services money for treatment. So, we got that changed. I think those things help. I think the toughest one that we were involved in is changing registration laws. I still take heat from [that] because it’s misunderstood. It used to be if you were convicted of statutory rape you had to register for the rest of your life and first of all, that hurt the person who may not have been what we call a true child predator, but also it flooded law enforcement with a lot of registrations that were unnecessary. If we really want to keep track of those who are the true predators, [it’s difficult] if you’re flooding that database. That was hard because I had a lot of legislators abandon me. They were afraid of sponsoring that law or voting for that law. I’m proud of it because it was a risk. I feel like if you’re going to be courageous, you need to take a risk. That’s the right thing that you can end up losing your job over.
Cullors: That’s right and thank you for going through that. My last question is about the role of police associations. We know that police associations have been under heavy scrutiny in the last several months from the George Floyd protests and uprisings, and people are really looking at what police associations are doing or what they’re about. Some people are even calling for police associations to be moved out of unions. We know that your campaign is very much backed by police associations with lots of dollars, and I want to know how can you hold law enforcement accountable if they’re also very much supporting and backing you? Do you see a conflict there, or do you not? What’s your opinion, what are your thoughts on this?
Lacey: I think the way to best explain it is to use a case that was very unpopular. We actually charged the LAPD officer, Mary O’Callaghan, with abuse of a woman by the name of Alesia Thomas. In my mind, I am an independent thinker. I’m an African American woman from the Crenshaw district. I present professional, but if I need to bring out the angry Black woman, I can do that. I can set people straight and I can tell people this is my decision. And I remember when we charged her and we didn’t charge her with a death, but we charged her with abuse because the coroner’s report said Miss Thomas died from an overdose, but I took a lot of flack the first time I went to the police and I was shocked. I thought, I’m just doing my job. I’m making the call and I did. Some of the union representatives did confront me and during the meeting, and I told them [to] look at the tape. The evidence is there. We did the right thing and it was tough, no question about it. The police, the PPL members were unhappy with me. They told me that, but they did not change my decision.
I wish there could be a documentary showing what goes into these cases, because the rule [is that] we don’t have police and police unions in the room. It’s my prosecutors, my investigators, and we are methodically going through this evidence. There are times we think we want to prosecute, but the evidence is just not there. I agree with police officers all the time on cases and it’s hard to tell you this, but I am an independent person. And trust me, I know. I know how to make up my own mind. I’m the lawyer in the room and I don’t have any problems saying look, I went to law school and I’m looking at this, and it’s just not fair.
There have been cases where I may not have had the union upset, but I’ve had a police chief who wanted me to do something and I tell them no. It’s not going to happen.
Right now, in terms of money, the only thing people can give me now is $1,500. And $1,500 is a lot, believe me. I do a lot of phone calling and asking people for money, but I maintain my own independence. I remember in the Gabriel Fernandez case when we had to charge those social workers, and we ultimately ended up losing that case. I was going to lose the SEIU. Largest union in the country, very powerful, a lot of money. But I had a dead kid and I had some social workers who changed the scores [and] that eight-year-old in there to die. And you know what? My attitude is, okay, because I’m going to do what’s right, even if it means I pay for it later. And I am paying for it. I often say the minute you get this job, as a DA you’re making people unhappy. You’re angering people. People either want you to file a case or they’re mad at you because you didn’t file, and you just have to have that independent streak where you say this is what I’m going to do.
Cullors: That case still haunts me. I think about the Gabriel Fernandez [case] and I think about that child every day. Literally, that’s it. So, as a mom of a four-year-old, I could not wrap my head around it. And so, those complicated moments for someone in your position to try to figure out: Who do you protect? He’s gone, so who gets held accountable? I know that there’s a documentary, I think you were in it. I wanted to watch it, but it was too infuriating, but super helpful to hear.
Lacey: No, I was gonna say I made myself watch it because I figure if that child suffered then I can suffer [through watching it] because we need to learn whatever we need to learn. We need to figure it out so that eight-year-olds, six-year-olds, ten-year-olds aren’t dying like that.
Cullors: Are there any last things that you want to say before we close out?
Lacey: Normally during campaign season, you know, you throw in barbs and digs at your opponent, [but] this doesn’t seem like the right forum for it. I just want people to understand that the woman you see is the woman you get. I believe in reform, but I also believe in safety. I grew up in a neighborhood where we just didn’t think the police cared about our community because they just didn’t show up on time or just didn’t seem to work the cases. I believe that my experience and my background have uniquely prepared me to continue to keep some stability in that DA’s office because I would hate for it to be taken over by someone who puts themselves before the needs of the community. That’s my closing argument.
Patrisse Cullors is a co-founder of Black Lives Matter and a senior fellow at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @OsopePatrisse.
Prism is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet that centers the people, places and issues currently underreported by our national media. Through our original reporting, analysis, and commentary, we challenge dominant, toxic narratives perpetuated by the mainstream press and work to build a full and accurate record of what’s happening in our democracy. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Q&A: Patrisse Cullors in conversation with Los Angeles DA candidate, George Gascon
Patrisse Cullors for Prism Reports
Tuesday, October 20, 2020
Patrisse Cullors: Thank you so much for taking the time, George! Let’s get right into it. My first question to you is: What does a district attorney do? What is their role in advancing justice and equity, and why has this race been called the second most important race in the country next to the presidency?
George Gascón: The question [of] what is the role of the DA? I think, is central not only to this phase, but to the movement to reimagine the criminal justice system, because the DA is a major factor in how the criminal justice system operates. Starting with the very basics, the district attorney is someone that gets to review all the work that the police officers do in terms of arrest, and it’s up to the district attorney and his or her policies to determine whether the cases are going to the prosecuted or not. If they’re going to be prosecuted, [the DA decides] whether [the charge is] going to be murder, whether incarceration is going to be something on the table, what level of incarceration even up to and including the death penalty.
Take the LA District Attorney’s Office. We know that the death penalty is always on the table and it’s exercised quite regularly. [Deciding] whether you treat children as kids or prosecute them as adults—again, this is a major role of the district attorney. Then in the area of police accountability, whether you’re going to hold police and other public officials accountable to the law. In LA County, we see a major gap there with over 600 police killings [and] a single prosecution, even including about 12 unarmed men of color that have been killed by police and having even the chief of police asking for prosecution—which is very, very uncharacteristic—and still having the DA refuse.
Then you get into the area of policymaking and working with the state and local legislators. District attorneys are very influential actors in how the laws are shaped that either provide funding relief for people or increase the size of the criminal justice system. So,, and you have policymaking.
The prosecutor plays a major role in environmental justice. So, you take LA County, which is one of the most polluted counties in the country—we have uncapped fossil fuel wells, we have unlawful dumping of hazardous materials, we’ve had gas leaks. Often, people don’t realize that actually the DA could play a major role in protecting our community in this area. Our current district attorney in LA has not done so. Then you talk about consumer law—holding corporations [and] landlords accountable to ensure that they’re playing fairly, that they’re treating their customers and the public appropriately is a major role of the district attorney. You’ve seen the current district attorney not being very present in this conversation of white-collar prosecutions, holding corporate leaders accountable.
There’re so many other layers to the work, and prosecutors in this country have been the major drivers behind mass incarceration and sustaining the systemic racism that is so deeply embedded into the criminal justice system. So [the office of DA has] an operational influence [through] the bully pulpit, sometimes by just not taking action.
Cullors: The big question from the community here in Los Angeles around the deaths that have happened at the hands of law enforcement is this: If you were to be elected, would you be willing to reopen any of the cases and file charges against officers?
Gascón: Yes. We’ve already taken several steps to do this. As part of my campaign, we have a group of civil rights lawyers who are helping our campaign go about reviewing prior incidents of police use of force where there are major questions as to the legitimacy of that force. What I have publicly committed myself to doing is two things: No. 1 is [that] if there were cases that require additional review on potential evaluation for prosecution, that I would be appointing special prosecutors to those for now. What is a special prosecutor? The special prosecutor will be an attorney who is not associated with the office [of the district attorney].
I will be looking for people with civil rights [experience] and high levels of experience in prosecuting complex cases of murder, and I will be allowing them to take the lead in charging those cases or reviewing those cases. They will have the complete authority of my office, but they will be working independently from me. And why am I doing this? I’m doing this because I recognize that regardless of how hard I try, as the elected district attorney many members of the community are going to feel that there is not enough separation or independence between my office and the police and the work that needs to be done. So, No. 1, my commitment is to assign special prosecutors as a temporary solution to the current situation.
No. 2, and what I believe to be the more sustainable long-term solution, is [to] work with other stakeholders in the system to get our legislative members in Sacramento to create enabling legislation that would allow counties to create a separate “office of special prosecutors,” if you will, that will be independent from the district attorney’s office, independent from the police or anyone else, [and] that will be tasked with investigating police shootings [to] determine whether the shooting was lawful or not. If they determine that a shooting was unlawful, [the office would then] proceed independently to prosecute the case.
Cullors: So specifically, that’s exactly what we need—we need to know how you’re going to be showing up, what the specific process will be. I think that response is super helpful for people who’ve just been trying to figure out how to deal with the harms and violence against their family members and not seeing any kind of accountability. I have another question: For three years now, Jackie Lacey has been avoiding a public meeting with Black Lives Matter. I know that you’re not her, but the nature of this position means that you will do things that the community sees as unjust. How do you see yourself being held accountable, and will you commit to always have public meetings with the community when requested? And what does that look like to you?
Gascón: I’m going to start backwards here and say very simply and unequivocally that yes, I am committed to having regular conversation with all stakeholders within the community—including Black Lives Matter—and to having an open-door policy. I often hear the current district attorney saying, “Well, I’m not going to talk to you until you stop protesting,” but as an elected official you cannot precondition your meetings with a community.
I quite frankly expect that there will be times when people are going to be protesting outside of my office, and then they’re going to come up the elevator and have a conversation with me. That’s the way the system is supposed to work. Now, how am I going to do this—in a very formalized way? If I get elected, my goal is to actually embed in the transition a broad spectrum of representation from the various segments of our community so that the community actually begins to take hold of how the district attorney’s office is going to serve the community. [I believe in] the concept of “whole governing,” which means bringing in stakeholders and elected and selected officials all together to ensure that the government is a representation of the community that is served, [and that] all of the procedures that we follow are based on collaboration and mutual conversations. So, this really has to start from the foundation of the development of the new administration if I were to be elected.
One of the very first things that I would be doing is working with stakeholders, including members of Black Lives Matter as well as others, because we have to cover the entire political spectrum as well. [We want] to make sure that people have a meaningful place at the table when decisions are being made about policies and procedures. It doesn’t mean that every moment everybody’s going to agree, obviously. Precisely because I find it very important to have a full spectrum of ideas, by definition that will mean that there will be disagreement. But based on my experience, I know that the ultimate decisions are much better when you have this broad base of opinions that come together, and people come to some level of consensus. I believe that it becomes a better-informed decision.
Cullors: Thank you. Next question: What are your top three policy priorities or reforms you would implement as soon as you’re elected here in the largest county in the United States?
Gascón: Well, there are multiple but since you narrowed it to three, I am going to say the first thing is that we will stop all death penalty prosecutions immediately. All cases on the “death track” will be taken out of that track and will be reevaluated for other options. I will immediately stop prosecuting children as adults. I know that there are many kids that are currently being prosecuted adults and I will immediately start a complete reevaluation of the structure of the office so that we start on deemphasizing that very punitive manner in which the office currently functions, and become a more restorative practice—and that will have a whole cascade of other things that will include, as I mentioned before, starting by creating transitional teams that will have civil rights lawyers looking at police use of force. But I would say that if you want to start at the very top of the peak: ending the death penalty, ending the prosecution of juveniles as adults, [and] immediately taking this top to bottom reevaluation of the practices of the office, reducing incarceration, increasing community safety.
Cullors: You are a former law enforcement officer. Why should voters see you as a better alternative than Lacey?
Gascón: I think that voters should support me instead of Lacey precisely because of my background. History matters. There is a lot of rhetoric that becomes a staple of political campaigning, but the reality is that you should not be allowed to reinvent yourself in the last 30 seconds of the campaign. I ask people to look at my record, whether you’re talking about prosecuting death penalty cases, [or] whether you’re talking about prosecuting children.
So, whether you’re talking about reducing incarceration, reform efforts, or reduction in violent crime, compare that to the current Los Angeles DA—on every one of those points, you’re going to see complete differences.
I understand that Miss Lacey now is trying to reinvent herself at the last moment, but the reality is that regardless of what she says, violent crime in LA County has gone up by 30% during her administration, [according to] Department of Justice (DOJ) numbers. You will also see, based on DOJ files that violent crime in San Francisco County during my time in office was proportionately reduced. So, the first thing you have to say here is that you have two administrations, one saw a 30% increase in violent crime, the other one saw reduction.
The next thing is to look at incarceration level, because most people associate enforcement and incarceration with safety—it is a mistaken assumption, but let’s take it there. LA incarcerated at four times the rate of San Francisco. Again, that data is there on open sources.
So you have a county that incarcerates at four times the rate, which tells you that you are not onl,y criminalizing a higher number of people and families and communities, but you have to look at the return on your investment. If you wanted to follow the logic of many law enforcement people, you would anticipate that somehow that created more safety, but it didn’t.
Then I want you to look at things like how children are treated. And again, you will see that District Attorney Lacey just recently joined the Ventura district attorney to ask the California Supreme Court to allow a 14-year-old or 15-year-old to be prosecuted as an adult. Compare that and see what we did in San Francisco. When I was a district attorney, not only didn’t we prosecute kids as adults, but we actually went to a full restorative justice model for serious crimes. We took misdemeanors out of the criminal justice system when it came to kids. And actually, our juvenile crime proportionally went down more than LA. You can talk about police accountability and see who was the only district attorney that stood up, working with members of the Assembly, to create a wall to reduce the threshold as to when a police officer can use deadly force. You will see again [that] Jackie Lacey was on the opposite side of the aisle. I’m only citing a few—I can work on and on and on.
Cullors: Of course.
Gascón: The realities of the differences are great, and they are there for everyone to see. If you want to, stay away from the information from either campaign and just go to the actual sources that have this information in there, [like] the Department of Justice and newspaper articles.
Cullors: There are three different policies that are centered around the budgets of the police and the city, the county, and the national government. A few we are in support of are the Care First budget of Los Angeles County, the People’s Budget in the city, and the BREATHE Act, which is a piece of federal legislation that many of us in the Movement for Black Lives worked on and have been pushing for Congress to pass. Do you support these policies?
Gascón: Yes. So, starting with the last one, the BREATHE Act, and the answer is yes, I am in support. I’m also supporting Proposition J, which is the county measure that would take 10% away from law enforcement entities within the county and move that money to community-based services. 10% should be the floor, just the beginning of the conversation. I believe that as we continue to develop alternatives to incarceration, alternatives to a law enforcement solution to problems like mental health and dispute resolution in our community and substance abuse and so many other things that we currently use law enforcement as the answer for, the reduction in the law enforcement budget and the shifting of the funding for those other services should be measurable and should be continuing.
I don’t believe that we should ever get rid of policing or prosecutors or jails or prisons, but I do believe that the scope of the work for policing, prosecutors, jails, and prisons should be substantially reduced, and when it is used, it should be used in a very different way than we currently use it. So, I would round out my answer by saying that I’m a strong supporter of restructuring and reimagining the entire criminal justice system. Just because we’ve always done it a certain way, doesn’t mean that we have to be continuing to do it. I believe in continuous exploration, of this reimagining of how we do the work, and part of that begins with doing what we’re doing in LA County by taking proposition J. I call it the down payment on the journey of reimagining our system.
Cullors: Thank you so much, George. Do you have any last thoughts you would like to share?
Gascón: I think one of the areas that was underlying in this entire conversation is that this is a historic election. Both The New York Times and the LA Times have called the race for LA DA the second most important race in the country in 2020, and the reason for that is because LA County has such an outsize influence not only what happens within LA County, but what happens in the rest of the state and the nation. Just to give you one minor piece of information, there are approximately 700 people on death row in California. It’s the largest death row in the country. A third of those come from LA County, 50% of that group have documented mental health problems; almost all of them are men of color. And if you were to amortize a single execution in the state of California today, meaning how much it would cost, it would be about $300 million. Just think about how much education, how many mental health services, how much public health we can buy with $300 million.
This race will matter. In big and small ways, elections always matter, and I believe in many ways this is a fight for the soul of our country and our community. I hope that even those members of our community who often are not accustomed to voting understand just how important it is. I thank everyone and I really, really appreciate the support.
Patrisse Cullors is a co-founder of Black Lives Matter and a senior fellow at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @OsopePatrisse.
Prism is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet that centers the people, places and issues currently underreported by our national media. Through our original reporting, analysis, and commentary, we challenge dominant, toxic narratives perpetuated by the mainstream press and work to build a full and accurate record of what’s happening in our democracy. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Editorial: District Attorney’s death penalty decision is welcome news
California’s governor, DAs should see the light and launch a new initiative to abolish capital punishment
Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen’s surprising announcement Wednesday that his office will no longer seek the death penalty is welcome news. So are his reforms designed to achieve greater fairness and racial justice following the police killing of George Floyd.
Rosen says that he has become disillusioned with the death penalty. That’s understandable. We have argued for two decades that capital punishment is barbaric, costly, unfairly applied and does not prevent crime any more effectively than the prospect of life in prison.
His decision reflects California’s slowly changing attitude toward capital punishment. We hope it inspires other district attorneys and prompts a statewide initiative to repeal California’s death penalty.
Gavin Newsom should lead that effort. The governor made clear while campaigning in 2018 that he opposed the death penalty but would respect the will of the voters, who in 2016 narrowly rejected a ballot measure to stop executions.
The governor said that he wanted to lead a conversation on repealing it. That never happened. Instead, in 2019 he thumbed his nose at voters and suspended the death penalty. Now, in the midst of a raging pandemic, isn’t the time to start a death penalty debate. But it needs to be a priority when normalcy returns to California.
Rosen’s office has sought the death penalty only four times since he became district attorney in 2011. In two of the cases he rescinded the charge and in the other two juries rejected the death penalty either through acquittal or at sentencing.
Since 1978, the state has spent more than $4 billion on just 13 executions. California’s district attorneys are much more likely to seek the death penalty for Black defendants than white. And juries in California are much more likely to recommend a death sentence for a Black defendant.
In addition to no longer seeking the death penalty, Rosen is instituting a Public and Law Enforcement Integrity Team to provide additional oversight of police officer conduct in the county. The team will supplement police departments’ internal affairs units and, in San Jose and Palo Alto, the independent police auditor’s office.
“We want to weed out bad officers who shouldn’t be (on the streets) and help good officers become even better officers,” said Rosen.
The district attorney’s office will also rewrite its charging formula, a change that will impact thousands of cases every year. The aim is to stop trying to incarcerate someone for as long as possible. Instead, Rosen is writing new rules to hold defendants accountable in a way that is fair and equitable for all racial and ethnic groups.
Additional steps may be necessary. But the new approach represents a solid step toward achieving racial justice in Santa Clara County.
Man Who Saved Three Prison Guards Executed by Tennessee
The State of Tennessee executed Nicholas Sutton, 58, by electrocution last night after Governor Bill Lee denied a clemency application supported by correction staff, victims’ family members, many of the original jurors, and those whose lives Mr. Sutton has saved.
“Nick Sutton has gone from a life-taker to a life-saver,” former federal district court judge Kevin Sharp wrote in Mr. Sutton’s clemency application. No fewer than seven former and current Tennessee correction officials supported clemency for Mr. Sutton, whom they described as “an honest, kind, and trustworthy man who has used his time in prison to better himself and show that change is possible.” One wrote that Mr. Sutton’s “efforts at self-improvement and willingness to embrace change are an inspiration.” (For the rest of the story click here.)
The film — based on Bryan Stevenson’s book and starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx — is flawed but vital.
Since 1976, for every nine Americans executed by the state, one is exonerated and released from death row — a margin of error that should terrify us all. (And yet, after years of decline, American support for the death penalty ticked up in 2018.)
That’s precisely what Just Mercy, a true story that will set your sense of injustice ablaze, aims to change.
Death Penalty Juror Describes the Effects of Condemning a Man to Death on Her
Participating on a death penalty jury has significant negative effects on jurors. It is not healthy for people to participate in the death of other people, no matter how guilty they are.
In the light of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order to halt the death penalty in California.
We, the voters of San Mateo County, request that you honor Gov. Newsom’s moratorium on the death penalty. We specifically request that you immediately pledge that your office will no longer seek the death penalty in any criminal case brought in Santa Clara County.
To read the petition and sign it, go here.
Now he has filed a federal lawsuit against officials who imprisoned him.
“I continue suffering from the injustice I lived through and the pain I must carry for the rest of my life,” said Benevides through a Spanish translator.
Benevides was arrested at age 41 and spent nearly 26 years at San Quentin. for the rest of the story, click here.
New Data Show County’s Death Sentences Characterized by Racial Bias, Unfit Lawyers
June 18, 2019
LOS ANGELES — The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Southern California released a white paper today revealing first-of-its-kind data around Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey’s record as it relates to the death penalty.
DA Lacey was first elected to her seat in December of 2012. Since then, 22 people have been sentenced to death. Key findings from the report include:
- All of the 22 defendants sentenced to death are people of color — 13 were Latinx, eight were Black and one was Asian. Not a single white defendant has been sentenced to death during DA Lacey’s tenure, although there were white defendants who were eligible for the punishment.
- Race of the victim also played a major role in determining who received a death sentence — just 12 percent of homicide victims in LA County each year are white, but 36 percent of the cases that led to a death sentence during DA Lacey’s tenure had at least one white victim.
- These defendants were represented by unfit lawyers — nine of the 22 defendants sentenced to die were represented by lawyers who were previously or subsequently disbarred, suspended, or charged with misconduct. A tenth had a lawyer who repeatedly fell asleep through his trial.
- LA County has produced more death sentences than any other county in the country — over the past five years, LA has also produced more death sentences per capita than any large county in Texas, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Utah, Washington, or Georgia. From 2014 to 2018, only LA and Riverside Counties in California and Maricopa County in Arizona sentenced more than 10 people to death in a given year. Of the 723 people currently under a sentence of death in California, nearly a third (31 percent) are from Los Angeles.
“LA County is an example of everything wrong with the death penalty,” said Cassandra Stubbs, director of the Capital Punishment Project at the ACLU. “Abysmal defense lawyering, geographic disparities, and racial bias are the legacy of its unfair and discriminatory use of the death penalty. LA is one of the largest drivers of death sentences nationwide, despite the repeated rejection of the death penalty at the ballot box by LA voters. DA Lacey should take a step forward for racial justice and help end America’s failed experiment with the death penalty by announcing she will no longer tolerate death penalty cases under her watch.”
In March 2019, California Governor Newsom issued a moratorium on the death penalty, effectively halting all executions while he’s governor. Despite that, DA Lacey continues to sentence people to death.
“California is at a moment of reckoning with respect to the death penalty,” said Jessica Farris, director of criminal justice at the ACLU SoCal. “Governor Newsom’s moratorium on state-sanctioned killing reinforces what Angelenos have repeatedly expressed at the ballot boxes — the discriminatory and unfair death penalty has no place in a just California. Despite the moratorium and opposition from the DA’s constituents, Lacey’s office continues to seek the death penalty in the face of unmistakable evidence that the practice disproportionately affects Black and brown people and people without access to quality counsel. DA Lacey holds the power to immediately end death sentences in LA County. We hope she will.”
Join other Santa Clara residents in signing the petition asking Santa Clara DA Jeff Rosen in Honoring Governor Newsom’s moratorium on California’s death penalty. To sign, click here.
The words of Judge Clifford B. Shepard filled the courtroom in Jacksonville, Fla., on Oct. 27, 1976. Shepard was sentencing Clifford Williams Jr., whom a jury had just found guilty of entering a woman’s house with a spare key entrusted to him and then shooting her dead from the foot of her bed.
It was a bizarre verdict, for forensics showed that the shots had been fired from outside the house — through the window, breaking the glass and piercing curtains and a screen. Moreover, at the time of the shooting Williams had been attending a birthday party, an alibi confirmed by many in attendance.
That didn’t matter, for Williams was an indigent black man with a public defender who didn’t call a single witness. The jury didn’t realize that he had an alibi or that the bullets had come from outside the house.
Read the rest of this article here.
A request from Sister Helen Prejean, January 2019
Dear Friend of Prisoners,
I have an invitation for you that may change your life. It surely did change mine.
Would you consider becoming a pen pal to one of the 744 men and women condemned to die in California? Whether or not your correspondence with a prisoner dramatically affects your life -busy as I know it must be – one thing’s for sure: it certainly will bring color, hope, and dignity to the thirsty, hungry soul in the locked cage who receives your freely-offered letter. I say it will bring dignity, because, coming as it does so unexpectedly, it will convey to the caged recipient as nothing else can: that whatever they may have done in the past, someone in this world recognizes that they are a human being by caring enough to write them a personal letter.
Imagine the sheer gift of your letter arriving with their name written on it -no, it’s not a mistake, that’s their name on the envelope, all right – delivered right into their hands like a shaft of light breaking into a drab, gray day-like-every-other-prison-day. A personal letter.
For me, somebody recognizes that I’m human. It’s addressed to me.
Back in 1982 I got an invitation to write a man on Louisiana’s death row – Patrick Sonnier – and the relationship that grew out of that correspondence changed my life, challenged it, enriched it, and deepened it forever. The point is that every soul deemed not worthy to live, who occupies a cramped cell in San Quentin (men prisoners) or in Chowchilla (women prisoners) is a human being with human rights, who does not deserve to be tortured and killed. And to add to the torture, waiting for death in a small cell for years and years – slogging against the gravitational pull of despair– alone, so alone.
If you do decide to correspond with a death row prisoner, do not be surprised if there is not an immediate response. Years of imprisonment can paralyze a soul. If this happens, I urge you not to give up. When I first wrote to Patrick I imaged myself being like a lighthouse, steadily sending him little beams of light, even if he didn’t respond. From the beginning, learn the prison rules about correspondence and follow them exactly. If you don’t, it’s the prisoner who suffers.
Finally, what counts the most is fidelity. What prisoners Do Not Need is a flurry of letters in the beginning and a promise of undying friendship – then……. Nothing. Better to commit to a minimum plan, perhaps a letter a month, and stick to it, no matter what. Postcards from beautiful places are welcome, especially since prisoners are so sensory deprived.
Godspeed as you open your heart and your life to human beings who happen to be prisoners.
May they be a gift in your life as surely as you will be in theirs.
From the heart,
Sister Helen Prejean
To learn more about this opportunity, please join San Diegans Against the Death Penalty for an information session. Enjoy light refreshments, meet past and current penpals, and learn how you can make a difference.
When: Thursday, January 31, 2019, either 11:30 am-1:00 pm or 7:00-8:30 pm
Where: Diocesan Pastoral Center at 3888 Paducah Drive, San Diego
NOTE: If you cannot attend the information session in San Diego, but are interested in writing to a death row inmate, e-mail SDagainstDP@gmail.com for more information.
By Sister Helen Prejean, a lifelong opponent of the death penalty, and the author of “Dead Man Walking.”
Dear Governor Brown,
As I see it, the question of whether or not you will use your power as governor to commute death sentences is soul terrain, moral ground, conscience ground, not simply political or legal ground. That’s because the practice of condemning conscious, imaginative human beings to death, which entails confining them in a restricted space for years on end and then killing them or holding them in death cells indefinitely, is always and inherently the practice of torture. It is the most fundamental violation of people’s dignity and human rights.
Waiting until the citizens of California end the death penalty through a ballot initiative may, indeed, be a legal solution, but, as you are well aware, legal solutions are not always moralsolutions. As Thomas Merton put it:
“In the end when we destroy the world, it will be legal.
This is what leads me to write you once again to urge you to transcend politics and legalities and to make the bold moral decision that is within your power as governor to make: end the torture of the 700 plus human beings on California’s death row by commuting their sentences of death to life imprisonment.. Make no mistake, Governor Brown, human beings, endowed with consciousness and imagination, who are condemned to death and spend long years on death row, are victims of torture. ”Subjected to extreme mental or physical assault while rendered defenseless” is the definition of torture by the U.N Universal Declaration of Human Rights and by Amnesty International. And for over thirty years by accompanying people on death row as their spiritual advisor, I’ve seen this torture close-up, including the suffering of men and women on California’s death row.
You are governor in a state that practices torture, Governor Brown. I believe this is the deepest moral question facing you: will you allow the torture of human beings on death row to continue after you leave office if you refuse to commute the death sentences?
How many years will it take before the citizens of California finally end the death penalty through a ballot initiative? Will your conscience permit you to take refuge in a legal or political justification for refusing to use your power to stop the torture of the women and men on your state’s death row, knowing full well that you had the power to stop it?
As yet, neither the U.S. Supreme Court nor Congress can bring itself to acknowledge the torture inherent in the death penalty, but I am sure that in your Christ- conscience you recognize it. Just as, well in advance of the Court and Congress, you have had the keen moral sense to recognize our national failure to deal with climate change and the human rights of immigrants at our borders- and had the moral courage to take bold steps to deal squarely with these blatant moral failures.
I pray to see you go down in history as the person who used his authority to empty death row and stop the torture of the human beings confined there.
Be bold, Governor Brown. Be Christ. Be Gandhi. Be your deepest, truest self, which, like Bethlehem’s star, you so clearly manifested in your words to Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition in 1992:
“There is a moral dimension to politics where the line of tactics, and compromise, and mere pragmatism has to stop. And the commitment to integrity, and life, and the values we know hold a civilized country together – that has to be maintained.”
As your sister in Christ I am praying mightily for you.
From the heart,
Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ.
Please click on the link above and sign the petition to Governor Brown to commute the death penalty convictions of all those currently on California’s death row. Then share it on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter–all your social media.
ROME — Pope Francis has declared the death penalty wrong in all cases, a definitive change in church teaching that is likely to challenge Catholic politicians, judges and officials who have argued that their church was not entirely opposed to capital punishment.
Most California governor candidates oppose the death penalty–but may have to preside over executions
Most California governor candidates oppose the death penalty — but may have to preside over executions
Supreme Court sends death-row case back to lower courts
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court sent a death-row case back to the lower courts Jan. 8 in a summary ruling.
In a 6-3 vote, the high court ordered the federal appeals court based in Atlanta to examine claims that a juror in the case of death-row inmate Keith Tharpe voted for the death sentence because Tharpe is black.
The U.S. Supreme Court had already halted Tharpe’s scheduled execution the night it was initially scheduled in September. Now the court is giving Tharpe — convicted of killing Jacquelin Freeman, his sister-in-law, 27 years ago — another chance to have a court hear his claims of racial bias on his sentencing.
Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the dissent and was joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, said the court’s unsigned opinion demonstrated “ceremonial hand-wringing” and he predicted Tharpe would lose his appeal. For the rest of the article, click here.
For death penalty abolitionists, 2017 offered a series of surprises, beginning with the results of the 2016 November elections.
California, Nebraska and Oklahoma all had referendums to abolish the death penalty during the election. In each of the states, residents defeated the measures.
Those defeats provided anti-death-penalty advocates with a “wake-up call,” according to Karen Clifton, executive director of Catholic Mobilizing Network. Clifton told NCR that she felt the passing of the referendums would have been a “natural trajectory,” reflecting early poll results. For complete article, click here.