Santa Clara County DA won't seek death penalty, San Jose police union fights back

Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen on Wednesday introduced a host of criminal justice reforms, chief among them that his office will no longer seek the death penalty, prompting the San Jose police union to fight back, calling some of his proposed criminal justice reforms "reckless."

Rosen said he was inspired by a trip to Montgomery, Alabama with his synagogue and a church group, where he was personally moved by stories of slavery and the "abhorrent uses of the death penalty." His turnabout was first reported by the Mercury News. He told reporters that his position has evolved and his reforms come as political leaders and law enforcement are looking to make real changes to right systemic injustices following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May. Rosen joins San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin and some other district attorneys across California, who have already renounced the death penalty outright.

"In the past, I supported the death penalty because of heinous crimes" committed and the havoc wreaked on their families, Rosen said at a news conference. "But I also trusted that we could ensure the fundamental fairness of the process."

However, Rosen said added: "With every exoneration and story of racial injustice it becomes clear to me this is not the world we live in." 

He also said that the death penalty takes up "massive public resources" and there are the very real and tragic examples of wrongful convictions.

The death penalty issue is a moot one in California, anyway.

After he was elected, one of Gov. Gavin Newsom's first moves was to put an end to lethal injections. 

Retired Santa Clara County judge LaDoris Cordell, a progressive criminal reform justice advocate, told KTVU that she is pleased with the death penalty decision, but she also wants him to "take next step and immediately change" the county’s 20 death penalty convictions to life without parole, which Rosen said he would do. 

"The governor’s moratorium is temporary and will expire when he leaves office," Cordell said. "If, indeed, Mr. Rosen now appreciates the immorality of the death penalty, he should act now. Imagine the daily lives of those inmates. They should not have to remain on Death Row any longer. The arc of justice bends to them, too.”

Rosen's other big bombshell reform is that his office will no longer charge anyone with a "standalone" resisting arrest charge. He said 18 percent of all those who are arrested on that charge were Black, when African Americans comprise 2% of the county's demographics. 

And Rosen's third  key new shift is that prosecutors will now look at cases with a new philosophical lens: "What should we charge?" as opposed to "what can be charged?" 

In response, the San Jose Police Officers Association fired back, calling Rosen's change of heart "reckless" and "politically motivated." 

In terms of capital punishment, the union said that Rosen is "reneging on his promise to voters to seek the death penalty for criminals that perpetrate the most heinous crimes on our residents including those who kill police officers or kill a child during a sex act."

In terms of not charging resisting arrests anymore, police union president Paul Kelly called that move "irresponsible."

"Jeff Rosen has just issued an open invitation to every drunk driver, criminal and violent gang member to resist arrest, impede investigations and openly challenge every police officer in our county,” Kelly said in a statement. “While the rest of the country is working to de-escalate dangerous interactions between police and the community, Jeff Rosen is purposely escalating confrontations that will only lead to increased uses of force and injuries or worse to police officers.” 

Rosen's other reforms include: 

  • Prosecutors ridealong with police, as well as community-based organizations.
  • Robust investigations of police misconduct by creating a Public and Law Enforcement Integrity Team. Rosen asked:  "Who will police the police?" 
  • Immediately stop collecting fines and fees from poor defendants and move misdemeanor cases of when someone is driving on a suspended license for failing to pay fees over to traffic court to be treated as an infraction. 
  • Pushing to eliminate the cash-bail system. "It's unfair for a wealthy but dangerous person to buy their freedom and a poor person who is not dangerous to be deprived of theirs." 
  • Rosen said he will make “Brady List” information available to prosecutors when they are making their filing decisions. A Brady List is an internal record of police officers whose court testimony is compromised and can be challenged because of an officer’s past of misconduct, criminal convictions or suspected dishonesty.
  • Rosen said his office will stop filing gang enhancements for misdemeanor crimes absent “extraordinary public safety concerns." 
  • Automatically expunge criminal records when a person completes probation, for qualifying crimes, which are usually misdemeanors.