By Michele Hanisee
In another exhibition of fluff and political grandstanding, George Gascón has promised that if elected District Attorney he would seek resentencing for the 229 inmates on death row who were tried and sentenced in Los Angeles County. Never mind that there is no legal authority for him to recall and resentence a person already on death row. For Mr. Gascón, who has never tried a criminal case, there is no need to understand the law when he can just ignore it.
In a subsequent written press release his campaign explained that Gascón’s plan included the following. He said he would drop the death penalty in cases pending trial after reversal. (That can’t include more than a handful of cases.) He said he would seek to “have the attorney general concede cases on appeal with “meritorious” claims. More grandstanding. If a claim on appeal is meritorious, the attorney general will concede it with or without the “collaboration” of Mr. Gascón. Finally, he said he would work with the governor and the courts to “pursue fair and just claims.” Mr. Gascón’s press release did not provide details as to how he would work with the “governor and the courts” to reverse death sentences and we can’t even guess what that is supposed to entail. Even the Governor has limited authority.
The Governor has the power to do one of three things. He can grant a pardon (which nullifies the conviction), a commutation (a reduction in sentence), or a reprieve (a temporary delay in carrying out the sentence). His power of reprieve is what allowed him to declare a “moratorium.” That “moratorium” is temporary and only exists so long as he holds office. But there are limits to the Governor’s power to grant commutations and pardons. He may not grant a pardon or commutation to a twice convicted felon without approval of the State Supreme Court. Governor Brown learned this the hard way, when on multiple occasions the State Supreme Court reversed commutations he had given to murderers, the first time the court had done so in more than 50 years. Not surprisingly, most of the condemned inmates on death row have multiple felony convictions.
What it breaks down to is this. Only a jury of citizens from our communities can hand down a death sentence. Not the District Attorney. So, while a District Attorney can file a petition to resentence a person serving a prison sentence, they cannot petition under the law to recall a sentence of death. Moreover, a petition is just that – a request to the court, which can be denied. Also, that request must be made to the court that originally heard the trial, listened to all the evidence, and affirmed the death sentence handed down by the jury. How does Mr. Gascón think that is going to work out?
Mr. Gascón did not include the family members of all the murder victims among the “stakeholders” he intended to collaborate with. He made no mention of “Marsy’s Law” which grants to victims a Constitutional guarantee in the finality of a sentence. It would be a grotesque tragedy for most family members of murder victims to watch a prosecutor from the District Attorney’s Office, an office that supported and advocated for them through the original trial and penalty phase, now argue to overturn the death sentence of the vicious murderer who killed their loved one. Even worse, with both the defense attorney and the prosecutor now on the side of the defendant, who will represent the rights of the victim’s family?
Gascón’s heart is clearly set on being the champion of the accused and the convicted. There are jobs out there where he could legitimately pursue his goals of trying to reduce criminal penalties and rehabilitate convicted criminals. The Public Defender’s Office, Probation Department, and Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation come to mind. But his absolute contempt for victims of crime make him unsuited to head an office whose mission is “protecting our community through the fair and ethical pursuit of justice and the safeguarding of crime victims’ rights.”
Michele Hanisee is President of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys, the collective bargaining agent representing nearly 1,000 Deputy District Attorneys who work for the County of Los Angeles.