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Why prosecutors seek the death penalty when CA executions are on hold




Suspected killer Lonnie David Franklin Jr., dubbed the
Suspected killer Lonnie David Franklin Jr., dubbed the "Grim Sleeper" for a 14-year break between his strings of murders, is pictured during his arraignment in Los Angeles Criminal Courts on July 8, 2010.
Al Seib/AFP/Getty Images

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A Los Angeles jury convicted Lonnie Franklin Jr. yesterday of murdering nine women and a teenage girl in South L.A.

Franklin was dubbed the "Grim Sleeper" for an apparent 14 year break in the killings that spanned from 1985 to 2007.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, and now it's up to the same jury that convicted Franklin to decide his fate.

But even if Franklin is sentenced to death, it's unlikely to be carried out anytime soon. That's because executions in California have been on hold since 2006.

So why do district attorneys still pursue it? 

Robert Dunham, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center, says that decision is made county by county, by the district attorney.

Dunham says that most counties in the U.S., and most counties in California, are not using the death penalty.

"Two percent of the counties in the United States are responsible for more than half of the individuals who are on death row in the country." Dunham says. "And it's also the case that five of the 15 leading counties in the United States in terms of producing death sentences actually come out of California."

But with executions in the state effectively on hold, Dunham says, the death penalty in California has become a largely symbolic response. 

What determines whether a death sentence will be handed down, Dunham says, comes down to local politics and local practices. And for the most part, Dunham says, that has less to do with the nature of the crime and more to do with "what the political culture is and what the political gain may be for the prosecutor."

To listen to the full interview, click the blue player above.