The Los Angeles County DA Has Put 22 People on Death Row. Not One of Them Was White.

The ACLU just issued a report asking why.

Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie LaceyAlex J. Berliner/AP

In Los Angeles County, only people of color have been sentenced to death in the last seven years. In a new report titled “The California Death Penalty Is Discriminatory, Unfair, and Officially Suspended: So Why Does Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey Still Seek to Use It?” the American Civil Liberties Union details how Lacey, the black Democratic district attorney who has the power to pursue death sentences, is the force behind the numbers.

“LA is one of the largest drivers of death sentences nationwide,” said Cassandra Stubbs, director of the Capital Punishment Project at the ACLU. Los Angeles County is overwhelmingly Democratic and home to more than 10 million people. Since Jackie Lacey was sworn in, in December 2012, 22 people have been sentenced to death. By comparison, Harris County, Texas, which was once regarded as the death penalty capital of the United States, has handed down just six death sentences since 2013.

“Abysmal defense lawyering, geographic disparities, and racial bias are the legacy of [LA County’s] unfair and discriminatory use of the death penalty,” Stubbs said. Capital punishment has historically been marked by racial discrimination, and that has been true no matter where it is still practiced. In 2016, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund found that although black people make up 13 percent of the population, they make up 42 percent of the death row population overall. Within this context, what has happened in LA is noteworthy. Of the 22 people sentenced to death during Lacey’s tenure, 13 identify as Latino, eight are black, and one is Asian. 

One reason for the disparity overall is that death sentences are frequently handed down to defendants who lack the resources needed for a good defense lawyer, so they must rely on often-inadequate court-appointed counsel. According to the report, of the 22 people sentenced to death since 2012 in LA, eight were represented by lawyers who either already had serious misconduct charges or would go on to have them. One of the defendants even represented himself at trial and offered no exculpatory evidence during the guilt phase, basically guaranteeing that he’d be sentenced to death. 

Lacey’s penchant for seeking death sentences comes at a time when California is at a crossroads in its relationship with the death penalty. In March, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a moratorium on capital punishment in the state, effectively granting a temporary reprieve for California’s 737 death row inmates. “I do not believe that a civilized society can claim to be a leader in the world as long as its government continues to sanction the premeditated and discriminatory execution of its people,” he said. Nonetheless, Californians remain divided on the matter, with recent polling showing that 61 percent of residents support continuing the death penalty, even as its popularity wanes nationwide

But in Lacey’s LA County district, voters prefer life sentences over death, according to an April 2019 Quinnipiac University poll, which found only 34 percent in favor death sentences, with 56 percent opposed. “Lacey’s office continues to seek the death penalty in the face of unmistakable evidence that the practice disproportionately affects black and brown people and people without access to quality counsel,” said Jessica Farris, the director of criminal justice at the ACLU Southern California said. “The discriminatory and unfair death penalty has no place in a just California.”


In 2014, before Donald Trump announced his run for president, we knew we had to do something different to address the fundamental challenge facing journalism: how hard-hitting reporting that can hold the powerful accountable can survive as the bottom falls out of the news business.

Being a nonprofit, we started planning The Moment for Mother Jones: A special campaign to raise $25 million for key investments to make Mother Jones the strongest watchdog it can be. Five years later, readers have stepped up and contributed an astonishing $23 million in gifts and future pledges. This is an incredible statement from the Mother Jones community in the face of the huge threats—both economic and political—against the free press.

Read more about The Moment and see what we've been able to accomplish thanks to readers' incredible generosity so far, and please join them today. Your gift will be matched dollar for dollar, up to $500,000 total, during this critical moment for journalism.

We Recommend


Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.


We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.