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"Golden State Killer" case death penalty decision renews debate in California

Golden State Killer to be charged again

California prosecutors announced Wednesday they will seek the death penalty if they convict the man suspected of being the notorious "Golden State Killer," renewing debate over Gov. Gavin Newsom's moratorium on executing any of the 737 inmates on the nation's largest death row. Newsom's reprieve lasts only so long as he is governor, and it does not prevent prosecutors from seeking the death penalty nor judges and juries from imposing death sentences.

At a press conference Thursday, Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer gathered with families of murder victims and denounced the moratorium, calling it a "blanket unlawful order." Spitzer announced a "victims of murder justice tour" throughout the state to advocate for Newsom to reconsider his decision.

"Governor Newsom took a knife and stabbed it into the heart of all of these crime victims standing here today and thousands of crime victims who received a lawful death sentence in the state of California by a jury," Spitzer said.

The Golden State Killer, a serial killer who eluded capture for decades, would sneak into suburban homes at night. Authorities said if a couple was home, he would tie up the man, place dishes on his back and threaten to kill both victims if he heard the plates fall while he raped the woman.

The Golden State Killer

"These are horrific crimes. Our sympathies are with the victims and families who have suffered at the hands of the Golden State Killer," Newsom spokesman Brian Ferguson said in a statement acknowledging that the governor's executive order does not affect the ability of local prosecutors to make charging decisions.

Prosecutors from four counties briefly announced their decision to seek the death penalty during a short court hearing for Joseph DeAngelo Wednesday. DeAngelo was arrested a year ago based on DNA evidence linking him to at least 13 murders and more than 50 rapes across California in the 1970s and '80s.

He stood expressionless in an orange jail uniform, staring forward from a courtroom cage, as prosecutors from Sacramento, Santa Barbara, Orange and Ventura spoke. Although prosecutors from six counties were in court for the four-minute hearing, charges in those four counties include the special circumstances that could merit execution for 12 of the 13 murders under California law.

His attorney, public defender Diane Howard, objected to seeking the death penalty against a 73-year-old man, saying in an email that the decision "does not further justice and is wasteful."

With a multi-county prosecution team involving more than 30 people, she cited a Sacramento County estimate that the prosecution will cost taxpayers more than $20 million.

DeAngelo has yet to enter a plea and his trial is likely years away.

Speaking Thursday, Spitzer called on the governor to meet with victims whose family members were killed by inmates on the state's death row and to conduct clemency reviews on a case-by-case basis in place of the moratorium.
 
The father of murder victim Sam Herr, who was slain and dismembered by his neighbor Daniel Wozniak in 2010, said Thursday that Newsom "re-opened old wounds and created new ones as well" by enacting the moratorium. Wozniak, an ex-actor, killed Herr and his friend Julie Kibuishi as part of a plot to steal money to fund his wedding. CBS News' "48 Hours" investigated the case in the episode "Killer Performance."

Killer Performance

Steve Herr said his son and Kibuishi received justice when Wozniak was eventually sentenced to death, but Newsom "took away their justice."

"That, governor, is immoral," he said.

Ron Harrington, the older brother of Golden State Killer victim Patrick Harrington, also denounced the moratorium after witnessing Wednesday's announcement. 

"The death penalty does serve as a deterrent," Harrington said. "Unfortunately now our governor has decided to interpose his own personal opinion regarding the death penalty."

Orange County District Attorney’s press conference on the governor’s Death Penalty Moratorium in Sacramento

Posted by Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer on Thursday, April 11, 2019

California has not executed anyone since 2006, but Newsom said he acted last month because 25 inmates have exhausted their appeals and court challenges to the state's new lethal injection process are potentially nearing their end. He endorsed a repeal of capital punishment but said he could not in good conscious allow executions to resume in the meantime knowing that some innocent inmates could die.

He also said he is exploring ways to commute death sentences, which would permanently end the chance of executions, though he cannot act without permission from the state Supreme Court in many cases.

Newsom's announcement "places decisions that local prosecutors make in a different light," said Death Penalty Information Center executive director Robert Dunham, whose organization has been critical of how the penalty is administered. Decisions should be made on the facts "and not on their perception of gaining political points by opposing the governor."

Voters narrowly supported capital punishment in 2012 and 2016, when they voted to speed up executions by shortening appeals.
Criminal Justice Legal Foundation legal director Kent Scheidegger said prosecutors' decision made sense despite Newsom's moratorium.

"It's a perfect example of a killer for whom anything less would not be justice," said Scheidegger, who is fighting in court to resume executions. "I think it's entirely appropriate for DAs to continue seeking the death penalty in appropriate cases, because the actual execution will be well down the road and the governor's reprieve won't be in effect by then. Something else will have happened."