Leading California prosecutors said in a lengthy report Wednesday that there is no need for a death penalty moratorium in the state because capital sentences are meted out in a reliable, fair manner.
Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, the California District Attorneys Assn. and the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a pro-law enforcement group, took issue with assertions that California, which has more than 600 people on death row at San Quentin, has a flawed system of capital punishment.
“California’s legal system provides more protections for those charged with capital murders than any other death penalty state,” said Michael Rushford, president of the foundation.
Death penalty critics denounced virtually every aspect of the report, branding it a political document based on faulty information or misinterpreted data.
The authors said the report was drafted in response to growing publicity about problems with the death penalty -- particularly in other states -- and a growing movement for a death penalty moratorium in California.
So far, two California counties and several cities have adopted resolutions calling for a halt to executions, but Gov. Gray Davis, a staunch supporter of capital punishment, has said he sees no reason for a moratorium.
Still, death penalty advocates are concerned, said Lawrence Brown, executive director of the California District Attorneys Assn.
“While much of the debate has centered on states other than California, it would be wishful thinking to believe that the debate hasn’t affected California citizens,” Brown said. Polls show that although a majority of Californians favor capital punishment, support for it has eroded in recent years.
The report’s authors praised procedural safeguards in capital cases even as they severely criticized the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal appellate court that has overturned a number of state death sentences in recent years.
“The very institution they are attacking -- the 9th Circuit -- is the principal insurance against unfair outcomes in capital cases in California,” said UC Berkeley law professor Frank Zimring, a death penalty critic.
“The thing that makes this document worth noting in the history of capital punishment in California is that the controversy over the death penalty has become intense and chronic enough that the prosecutors feel they have to defend it,” he said.
Zimring said a majority of California residents favor both capital punishment and a moratorium on executions. “That kind of ambivalence is the context in which this debate is being played out,” he added.
With 616 condemned inmates, California has the largest death row in the nation. But only 10 people have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977.
California’s death penalty “is reserved for the worst offenders, is applied only after careful judicial review, and provides defendants with a quality and vigorous defense,” Lockyer said.
The report also said California law “provides extraordinary safeguards” for death penalty defendants, including automatic review by the California Supreme Court.
“Unlike other states,” according to the report, “innocent” defendants have not narrowly escaped executions.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., three California men sentenced to death were exonerated eventually. But according to the report’s authors, all three had their sentences reversed on procedural grounds, “not actual innocence.”
One of those cases involved Patrick Croy, who was convicted of murdering a police officer in Yreka. He was tried again after an appeal, and a jury found that he had acted in self-defense.
“Killing in self-defense means you are innocent of murder,” said Berkeley defense lawyer James Thomson, who criticized the description of the Croy case in the report.
Thomson also said the state’s standards for who can represent a capital defendant are “inadequate and do not guarantee quality representation.”
Columbia University law professor James Liebman, who has written two detailed death penalty studies in recent years, took issue with the report’s basic theme.
“California has been able to execute only a tiny fraction of its largest-in-the-country death row because of the substantial amount of error that has been found by courts reviewing its death sentences,” he said.
“The authors of this report say the California system has a fair process because there is comprehensive review of the legality and reliability of death sentences. But then they turn around and complain about the results of that review: very high reversal rates,” Liebman added.