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Chart: Death Sentence Declines For 10 winter weeks, Demarcus Ralls wreaked havoc in Oakland. His criminal trial had a similar effect on Alameda County prosecutors, forcing them to be more selective about pursuing capital punishment, even against someone with multiple homicide convictions. Shortly after Ralls escaped a death sentence in April � despite being convicted of four homicides, plus confessing to a fifth � a bewildered prosecution team dropped death charges against two of his co-defendants, reasoning that neither screamed for a death sentence as loudly as Ralls. “Instead of sending three to death row, we’re sending zero,” said Angela Backers, Alameda County’s senior deputy district attorney in charge of the homicide division. Alameda County isn’t an isolated example. After averaging about eight death judgments a year since the mid-1980s, Northern Calfornia counties have seen just nine total since the start of 2003. In 2004, there were zero, although jurors returned five last year. So far this year, there’s been one. What’s changed about death penalty cases? While California polls reflect continuing support for the death penalty, even in Northern California, it has been a slimmer majority in recent years � 63 percent in a Field Poll earlier this year, down from 74 percent in 1997, and 83 in 1986. Pollsters and criminal law experts studying death penalty trends point to a variety of possible contributing factors, including the move to halt executions in Illinois six years ago and questions about whether the death penalty is imposed fairly and free from error. That’s led some legislators to push for a statewide moratorium on the death penalty. Some say jurors are now struggling to separate the more “routine” killings from truly outrageous ones. “Even if the crime is egregious, jurors want only the worst of the worst. They want to know the number of bodies,” said Karen Fleming-Ginn, a jury consultant based in Walnut Creek. Seasoned prosecutors admit they are becoming more selective about pursuing the death penalty. “We probably exercise more discretion now than we have in the past,” said Brian Baker, chief assistant district attorney in Contra Costa County. But jurors can be fickle. Retired sales tax auditor Bruce Wormell was one of the 12 who voted to reject a death judgment for Ralls. Wormell said he wasn’t persuaded by the sheer number of murder convictions, noting he believed one killing was accidental, and evidence from others came as police interrogated Ralls without an attorney present. Yet Wormell said dropping further death charges was not the message he meant to deliver � particularly in the case of Joe Ralls, Demarcus’ cousin, who faces trial on charges of gunning down two young men at a West Oakland holiday party three years ago. “We could have given [Joe Ralls] the death penalty. That would have been no problem,” Wormell said. DEATH SENTENCE DROUGHT Santa Clara prosecutors say their prosecution of DeShawn Campbell in the murder of a San Jose police officer, set to begin later this year, will be just the second time in 10 years that their office has tried a death penalty case. That’s a big drop from 1991 to 1997, when Santa Clara County sent 14 people to death row. “There’s been a dry spell for a while,” said Assistant District Attorney David Tomkins. San Mateo County has tried just one death penalty case in the last five years, and it has been almost 12 years since prosecutors there won a death sentence. Compare that with District Attorney James Fox’s first 10 years in office, when “we had submitted [death charges] 18 times, and the jury returned it 14 times.” San Mateo prosecutors are now pursuing fewer death penalty prosecutions, and juries are returning death sentences in fewer of those cases, Fox said. Not all district attorneys track their own success rates in death penalty cases as closely. Grover Trask II, the district attorney in southern Riverside County, has studied death penalty trends more than most, having authorized the prosecution of more death row inmates than any other current district attorney in the state. (Only Los Angeles has sent more people to death row than Riverside County.) Trask said that if a prosecutor routinely strikes out with local jurors on the question of death, it’s a DA’s obligation to become more selective. “Obviously, if we’re seeking death in 100 cases and the jury comes back with life without parole in 80 percent of those cases, we’re not doing a very good job of selecting those cases,” he said. Riverside County hasn’t encountered the same issues with death sentencing as Northern California. Prosecutors there generally bring death charges in 12 to 20 percent of eligible cases, and they succeed in getting a death sentence 85 to 90 percent of the time, Trask said. ACES, STRAIGHTS AND FLUSHES Solano County Chief Deputy Public Defender Michael Ogul said it’s hard to gauge trends in death sentencing, but he doesn’t think what’s happening in Northern California is a fluke. Both society and prosecutors are becoming more aware of the need to reserve the death penalty for extremely rare cases, he said. “People aren’t as uptight about murder now as maybe they were 10 years ago,” Ogul said. Criminal defense attorneys, he added, can apply this insight when trying death penalty cases. “The way I look at it is, when you can really understand the individual defendant as a human being, that this individual is not just an evil person, that’s the ticket to success,” he said. “That’s the way to get jurors not to vote death.” Despite the death penalty case against Demarcus Ralls and its aftermath, Backers, the Alameda County prosecutor, said she will continue asking the same question each time a death-eligible case comes along for review. “Has this person committed a crime that is so heinous they deserve to die for it as a punishment?” If the answer is yes, Backers said, the county will seek the death penalty, as always. Backers said she’s counting on three death sentences from homicide trials beginning late this year, including a case District Attorney Tom Orloff is handling and one Backers will prosecute herself. But she knows the odds of getting death in all three cases are slim. Since 1995, Alameda County prosecutors have obtained death sentences in 17 out of 46 capital cases, for a success rate of 37 percent. Put another way, county prosecutors tried three or more death penalty cases each year between 1995 and 2004. They won three death sentences only once during that time, in 2002. “We can still pick a jury and obtain death. I think juries are just telling us they want to be sure they have the right guy,” Backers said. James Anderson, who headed the homicide team in Alameda County for many years, agreed. “I think they want nothing but aces, straights and flushes.”

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