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After hearing from 60 witnesses and looking at 150 pieces of evidence, an Alameda County jury convicted Demarcus Ralls of taking part in four thrill killings. He admitted a fifth murder. His own attorney saw him as an obvious candidate for death row. Not the jury. After two days of deliberations, they voted unanimously Tuesday to sentence Ralls to life in prison without possibility of parole. In recent years, the county’s death penalty convictions have fallen off a cliff. During District Attorney Tom Orloff’s 12-year tenure, his deputies have sent 15 people to death row. But there’s only been one in the last four years. Ralls’ attorney, Deborah Levy, figures the jury spared his life because of his youth and courtroom demeanor. She said, for example, that during the reading of the verdicts, Ralls took time to console one of her investigators who’d become visibly upset. “I find it remarkable that he’s caring about anyone else while his life is going down the toilet,” Levy said. Ralls took part in a notorious crime spree in which he and friends and family members shot and killed a series of victims, some randomly selected. Prosecutors dubbed the killers “nut cases,” a reference to the Mr. Peanut tattoos a few of them wore. Ralls shot at some of his victims but his bullets missed the mark. Darryl Stallworth, who prosecuted the case, said he was taken aback at the speed at which the jury rejected the death penalty. He noted, however, that Ralls speaks clearly and presents well. Rather than appearing as a maniacal, cold-blooded killer, “he acted like someone who didn’t know what the hell he was doing,” said Stallworth, a deputy DA. “First time I saw him I knew that was going to be a concern during the penalty phase.” Stallworth spent nearly two hours debriefing the jury after the verdict was announced Tuesday afternoon. The prosecutor said he felt good about the jury, a panel including eight men and four women, each of whom agreed to openly consider both sentencing options should Ralls be convicted. In 14 years as a county prosecutor, Stallworth has tried 15 homicides. Ralls was his first capital case. During the penalty phase, Stallworth emphasized the sheer volume of violent crimes in which Ralls participated. “My argument was that the conduct of the crimes showed no compassion, showed no mercy,” said Stallworth. “They disagreed.” Levy said she never questioned the decision to pursue death charges in the Ralls case. Compared to other parts of the state, Alameda County is fairly judicious about pursuing capital punishment, she said. “If you have someone involved in five homicides, I think that’s highly appropriate, quite frankly, to pursue the death penalty,” Levy said. This was the second time Levy faced a death sentence aimed at her client. She also represented Ropati Seumanu six years ago, who is now on death row. Levy is now preparing to defend Irving Ramirez, who stands accused of killing a San Leandro police officer and whose case is being prosecuted personally by Orloff. Though she didn’t question the DA’s decision to file death charges, Levy said she was convinced Ralls was not a “psychopath.” Two expert psychologists she hired arrived at the same conclusion, she said, and one of them testified during sentencing to that effect. “In every fiber in me, [I believe] this is absolutely the guy who deserves the break,” Levy said. Orloff didn’t return phone calls. Jay Gaskill, the former Alameda County public defender, seemed somewhat surprised when told Wednesday of the life sentence. “I think it went a little bit against the odds just looking at the factual basis of the crimes [but] it’s very difficult to know without sitting through the case,” he said. Gaskill, who once defeated a death sentence because of a single holdout on the jury, said so much of sentencing is a product of “chemistry.” But Gaskill thought the evidence of a fifth murder, which Ralls had confessed to committing as a minor, would have sealed his fate. “Under ordinary circumstances, you’d think that would be devastating for the defense,” he said. Having spoken with the jurors, Stallworth said three of them initially supported the death penalty while another three were at first undecided. Many of the undecideds soon switched votes to life in prison, before two holdouts finally caved in, Stallworth said. “I realized that the volume of the murders was not a major factor for the jury,” he said. “Maybe our society has become a little desensitized to the ‘garden-variety’ murders,” Stallworth said.

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