Local news are ablaze with Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen’s announcement from Wednesday, according to which his office will no longer seek the death penalty. The Chron reports:
Rosen said the change in policy was inspired by trips to Montgomery, Ala., first with a faith-based group and then with his family. After visits to civil rights museums and historical sites, Rosen said, he learned not only about slavery, but also what he called “the abhorrent misuse of the death penalty” against people of color.
“In the past, I supported the death penalty when I viewed heinous murders through eyes of the victims and families of those whose lives were taken,” Rosen said. But in recent weeks, “I have tried to look at this issue through the lens of race and inequity.
“These cases use up massive public resources and cruelly drag on for years with endless appeals that give no finality to the victims’ families,” he said. “There’s the tragic but real risk of wrongful conviction. And, shamefully, our society’s most drastic and devastating law enforcement punishment has been used disproportionately against defendants of color.”Michael Cabanatuan, “Santa Clara County DA Jeff Rosen no longer to seek death penalty,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 22, 2020
Things I learned from colleagues who study progressive prosecution and are in the know about Santa Clara County: Rosen is facing a challenge in the form of a more progressive candidate for D.A., and apparently he has been hiring the people that Chesa Boudin fired upon becoming San Francisco’s D.A. Frankly, if the outcome is real reform–ending cash bail, establishing an integrity team to investigate criminal police misconduct, and requiring deputy district attorneys and the office’s investigators, who are currently required to take police ridealongs, to also visit communities, whether the motives are pure or not does not interest me (they never can be with elected officials.)
But this decision raises some bigger questions about the prosecutors who still pursue capital trials despite the fact that we have a moratorium on the death penalty and, actually, no longer have a working death chamber at San Quentin (see image above.) Why are we still paying the enormous expense of capital trials and appeals as if we have a functional capital punishment? Perhaps because some county prosecutors are still behaving as if we have it–as late as last month, apparently, the California District Attorneys’ Association held a webinar on “changes to execution protocols, including California’s.” As members of the CDAA know full well, the “changes” in California consist of the fact that we no longer have an actual room with equipment to conduct executions, nor do we have the chemicals we squabbled for decades about, to the tune of billions of dollars in litigation.
I can see how, in some cases, district attorneys might feel the need to signal to their constituents that they consider this or that homicide case particularly heinous by publicly seeking capital punishment; however, as the L.A. Times explains here, even with someone with a shocking record of homicides like the Golden State Killer, there is no point in a death penalty that has no meaning whatsoever. Why capital punishment? So that DeAngelo can spend the rest of his years litigating our tax money away and die a natural death, like the vast majority of deaths on death row? What would be the point?
Rosen and other prosecutors are making the only practical choice under the circumstances. Even if you are a believer in capital punishment, as any New Age guru worth their salt will tell you, you have to let go of what no longer serves you.