California jurors sentenced 215 murderers to death during the last decade, or around one death sentence for each 100 homicide arrests, according to new state data. That's down 30 percent from the previous decade, a drop that is partially explained by falling murder rates. It's been several years since the state last put a condemned inmate to death, as officials deal with concerns over the drug used to execute killers.
Killers are sentenced to die much more often is some parts of the state than others. This map shows which California counties sentenced the highest percentage of murder suspects to death from 2000 to 2009.
--Interview with former Riverside County District Attorney Rod Pacheco.
--Interview with ACLU researcher Natasha Minsker.
Source: Office of the California Attorney General, Criminal Justice Profiles
Note: Small counties with few murders will have high rates even if they only condemned a few inmates.
Among large counties, Riverside had the highest rate of death penalty convictions. Here's what former Riverside District Attorney Rod Pacheco had to say in an interview with The Bee in 2009, edited for length, about his office's approach to prosecuting murders during the last decade. He started out by noting that many of the convictions came or started under his predecessor's watch ...
I have changed the approach. It's not that the prior district attorney's approach was not acceptable. Our violent crime rate is now exceedingly low. It used to be one of the worst. But I opened up the process ... to law enforcement and to the victim's family. We ask them, "Do you have a recommendation for us." We also bring in the defense attorneys and say "Tell us anything you want about this case."
Has that changed the number of death penalty prosecutions?: Every case is different. I don't know if we've had more or less (death penalty prosecutions) ... The people here have a very different view of public safety than the people in San Francisco.
You've been vocal about the length of time it takes in California to exhaust all the appeals of a convicted death row inmate: It's horrific. We need to reform the death penalty in California. It takes about five years for some (convicted murderers) to even be represented by a lawyer.
Have tough budget times affected the number of death penalty prosecutions?: It's funny you should ask that. I had a judge suggest that we not pursue the death penalty (because of financial considerations.) That's not a suggestion that is appropriate. Morally, I don't think I should consider the relative cost of a death penalty conviction.
The Northern California ACLU has published extensive studies of geographic patterns in death penalty convictions, arguing that they show where a murderer lives is often the most important factor in whether he gets condemned. Natasha Minsker is the director of the office's Death Penalty Policy Program. She started this interview, edited for length, by summarizing her office's findings.
Large counties continue to send more people to death row that smaller and mid-sized counties. And the culture of the district attorney's office is the biggest factor in these convictions.
Why are their fewer convictions in the smaller counties?: We've heard from people that it is a combination of budget problems and futility. It takes a lot of resources from the office, and it costs a lot of money.
How much does the political leanings of juries come into this?: I have seen no evidence that political beliefs play a part in this. In Northern California, Alameda County stands out as having the most convictions, and it is one of the most progressive counties in the state. ... (Because the voir dire process weeds out jurors who say they can't impose the death penalty) the juries you end up with in Alameda County are all still pro-death penalty.