Every once in a while, a person emerges on the national scene who has committed crimes so heinous or extensive that few will break from the chorus calling for the death penalty. Such is the case with the alleged, and recently apprehended, Golden State Killer.
Fewer than 1% of homicides are committed by a serial killer in a given year, and yet these cases tend to dominate the conversations on criminal justice and sentencing reform.
Setting policy based on outliers is a backwards way of affecting change, and the outcomes around the death penalty prove it.
Let’s examine why pursuing the death penalty in this case is so foolish, and why its presence on the policy books is problematic — even when moratoriums are in place.
From 1974 to 1986, a cat-burglar (Visalia Ransacker) turned rapist (East Area Rapist) turned serial killer (the Original Night Stalker) worked his way across California, leaving a wake of terror in the communities he struck. While you have to give California props for their naming creativity, you certainly shouldn’t give them any credit for their crime-solving abilities. Authorities didn’t even recognize the crimes were connected for years.
According to a new podcast, “Man in the Window” by The Los Angeles Times, a perfect storm of incompetence and secrecy, coupled with a disregard for rape victims, allowed the crime spree to span more than a decade with over 50 women violated and 13 dead — all while the perpetrator carried out a seemingly normal life in the community he victimized.
In the Bay Area, where victims were raped but not killed, the case remained largely unknown among the public. In Sacramento, the sheriff’s office blamed pornography for the rapes, discouraged rape victims from visiting victims’ centers, disparaged other law enforcement agencies who suggested the crimes were connected, and even hid attacks from the media.
Driven by a desire to maintain public approval for re-election campaigns and a motivation to ensure property values remained high, law enforcement officials created a culture of secrecy — not wanting to admit their department had failed to apprehend the culprit — and forced detectives to spread information anonymously between departments. While police continued to cover their tracks, the perpetrator was able to cover his own.
All of this blundering ran the investigations into the ground, leaving multiple counties with a pile of cold cases for decades. During that time, law enforcement offices discarded evidence and statutes of limitations ran out.
In 2001, DNA testing began linking the cases — a factor that led to the establishment of California’s DNA database — but it would take another 17 years for a culprit to be identified. In 2018, thanks to a renewed task force focused on solving these cold cases and questionable practices around DNA sharing, veteran and former policeman Joseph James DeAngelo was arrested and charged with the murders and related kidnappings.
Now, California prosecutors have announced they will seek the death penalty in the 42 year-old case, despite the fact that the state has a moratorium on all executions.
California has spent a jaw-dropping $4 billion on the death penalty since reinstatement, all for 13 executions. Meanwhile, the state grapples with the highest number of reported homicides in the nation, and an average clearance rate of 59% for murders. Not to mention their 13,615 untested rape kits.
Not only did the death penalty fail to prevent the Golden State Killer (or any other) from committing crimes, it is reasonable to argue that the money wasted on the death penalty created a resource gap that enabled more crimes to be committed. Instead of spending money on the death penalty, the state could have invested in a DNA databank long ago, hired more cops in regions experiencing spikes in violence, or even just carried out basic crime-solving tactics like testing rape kits.
We know each death penalty case costs about $1 million more than life without parole, and that 70% of those costs are incurred during the trial alone. So, in short, the state is seeking to spend about $1 million more than necessary to symbolically carry out a death penalty trial for a 73 year old man in a state that won’t even carry out executions. What’s the definition of insanity again?
The Golden State Killer’s case offers up a prime opportunity for all involved to learn from past mistakes and correct them. Instead, they are doubling down with failed practices that ignore their own malfeasance. Nothing they are doing would prevent another person from carrying out similar crimes, nor would it help to capture those who are currently committing violence. In fact, the money and attention wasted on this trajectory will most likely contribute to fewer crimes being stopped.
That $1 million would be far better spent on testing those backlogged rape kits. This is an injustice, and proof that we still don’t give rape cases the attention they deserve.
Hannah Cox is the National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Hannah was previously Director of Outreach for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank. Prior to that, she was Director of Development for the Tennessee Firearms Association and a policy advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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