California District Attorneys, Attorney General's Office and Others Release Death Penalty Study

Prosecutors' Report Rejects "Moratorium" as Unwarranted

Wednesday, March 19, 2003
Contact: (916) 210-6000,

(SACRAMENTO) – The California District Attorneys Association (CDAA), Attorney General's Office, Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (CJLF) and others today released a comprehensive research study contradicting assertions that the death penalty system is flawed in California.

The detailed report was drafted in response to recent high-publicity criticism and requests for a moratorium on the death penalty. The report details each step in a death penalty case from the point when district attorneys initially decide whether to seek the penalty through the lengthy and comprehensive appellate review process. It refutes allegations of unfairness in California's death penalty process by distinguishing California's system from other states, explaining the analytical flaws in reports alleging high "error" rates, and outlining the extraordinary procedural safeguards in place to protect the rights of defendants.

"The death penalty has been the target of relentless attack in recent years," said Imperial County District Attorney and CDAA President, Gilbert Otero. "District attorneys have grown tired of the rhetoric and misinformation used by those seeking to abolish capital punishment. We felt it our responsibility to set the record straight as to how the law is enforced in California. The state's citizens can take solace in the extraordinary safeguards used to ensure that only those murderers who are most deserving receive the death penalty. There is no need whatsoever to impose a so-called ‘moratorium' in California."

"California's prosecutors bear a heavy burden when deciding whether to seek the death penalty in brutal murder cases," Lockyer said. "Our system ensures that the punishment is reserved only for the worst offenders, is applied justly only after careful judicial review, and provides defendants with a quality and vigorous defense."

Key findings contained in the report include:

California's death penalty law targets only the worst murderers and district attorneys rarely seek the death penalty for qualifying cases. Less than 2% of all murderers in California were sentenced to death in 2001. State law limits the death penalty to only those murders involving one of a select list of 21 special circumstances. Each District Attorney thoroughly reviews the small subset of death-eligible cases, often after consulting with defense attorneys, before deciding whether to pursue the death penalty.

California law provides extraordinary safeguards in death penalty trials. Unlike many states, capital defendants are guaranteed, at no personal expense, high-quality defense attorneys at the trial court and appellate levels. Standardized qualifications for defense counsel require extensive experience in capital and other serious criminal cases. Defense attorneys are also provided significant resources for investigative and expert expenses.

Unlike other states, "innocent" defendants have not narrowly escaped execution in California. While some states imposed moratoriums or commuted death row sentences as a result of innocent persons coming close to execution, no one sentenced to death in California has ever established actual innocence. The three California defendants that the Death Penalty Information Center categorized as "innocent" had their death sentences reversed on procedural or other grounds - not actual innocence.

Studies alleging high death penalty error rates use misleading information to support their conclusions. Recent studies by death penalty opponents allege that appellate court reversals indicate that "innocent" death row defendants were wrongly convicted. Many reversals are the result of newly established California and U.S. Supreme Court precedent which must be retroactively applied to most death row defendants. The resulting reversals are often the result of ever-changing case-law usually designed to protect the rights of defendants, not the result of an innocence finding.

State and federal courts rigorously review every death penalty case in California. Under state law, even if a jury unanimously votes to sentence a defendant to death, the trial judge has authority to reverse the sentence if he/she feels the jury's decision was improper. Every case is automatically appealed to the California Supreme Court and capital defendants are allowed to directly and collaterally (through habeas corpus) challenge their conviction at every level of state and federal courts. It presently takes more than 15 years in California before an execution is carried out.

A copy of the report, "Prosecutors' Perspective on California's Death Penalty," can be found at the CDAA website:

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