State Panel Examines Death Penalty

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A state commission held a hearing in Los Angeles on Wednesday on the death penalty. One of the issues they discussed was how prosecutors decide which defendants end up facing the possibility of capital punishment.

Frank Stoltze: Two Pepperdine University professors sought to survey the state's 58 district attorneys about how they decide to seek the death penalty. Pepperdine Law Professor Chris Chambers said less than a third agreed to provide the information.

Chris Chambers: The main point here is that we experienced a distressing lack of responses from the district attorney's office. And because the decision to seek the death penalty is such an important one, transparency in the process really is crucial.

Stoltze: Chambers recommended the state begin collecting information about death penalty prosecutions, including age, gender, and ethnicity of the defendants and their victims. Prosecutors at the hearing bristled at the idea. Mike Ramos is district attorney of San Bernardino County.

Mike Ramos: We hold this responsibility near and dear to our heart. And if you ask us to give you detailed public information on every case that we review, you're exposing that process. You're going to create a chilling effect across the state of California.

Stoltze: Ramos said prosecutors retain broad discretion on when to seek the death penalty, and that it's appropriate those in conservative counties might seek it more often. But one study found that statewide, those who kill whites are nearly four times more likely than those who kill blacks to face the death penalty. The president of the California District Attorney's Association John Poyner said race plays no role in DA's decisions.

John Poyner: I would be happy to sit down and look at an entire police report and don't tell me the color of anybody. And I'll make my decision.

Stoltze: Poyner argued that you'd have to look at individual cases before determining racial bias. Yet most prosecutors refuse to give up much information. L.A. County Public Defender Michael Judge sits on the panel.

Michael Judge: To me, this is very disturbing, and I don't think that we can just say, "Oh, gosh, you know, we don't know why, and we're not going to do anything about it."

Stoltze: The commission also heard testimony on the value of the death penalty itself. California halted executions two years ago after a judge ruled that the state's lethal injection process was cruel and unusual punishment. That's only added to the frustration of Mary Ann Hughes. A jury convicted Kevin Cooper of murdering her 11-year-old son in 1983.

Mary Ann Hughes: We've lived with this nightmare for over 25 years while Kevin Cooper and his defense attorneys have manipulated the legal system that I always thought was one of the best in the world.

Stoltze: Aba Gayle has a different view. She lost her 19-year-old daughter to murder.

Aba Gayle: The man who killed Catherine in 1980 is still on death row. He has been there since 1983. After 12 years of anger and rage, I had a spiritual epiphany, and I was able to forgive the murderer.

Stoltze: Gayle said she'd like to see the death penalty abolished. The state commission is expected to make recommendations on improving the death penalty system in the coming months.