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SJ County DA opposes state death penalty in current form
Verber Salazaar

San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar has now set her sights on a major element of the criminal justice system that will soon be before the California Supreme Court – the death penalty. 

On Monday Verber Salazar announced through the progressive prosecutor’s organization that she is now a part of that she is standing with Governor Gavin Newsom and other district attorneys throughout California in opposition to the death penalty as the statutes are now written – going so far as to sign on to an amicus brief asserting “that the state’s death penalty system has resulted in arbitrary sentences in violation of the constitution.”

“Each of us seeks a safe society in which our families can thrive,” Verber Salazar said in a statement announcing the position of the Progressive Prosecutors Alliance – a group of prosecutors that includes San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton, and former San Francisco District Attorney and current candidate for Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascon.  “We can achieve that righteous goal without using an archaic form of punishment that is riddled with errors.

“We often see the re-victimization of families through the lengthy and costly appeals process for a method that has been proven to not deter violent crimes from happening.”

The announcement was just another in a series of moves that Verber Salazar has made this year to emerge as one of the most progressive prosecutors in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. Last week, for example, the district attorney in neighboring Stanislaus County announced that her office would once again be seeking the death penalty in the case of convicted murderer Scott Peterson – who had his death penalty sentence overturned by the California Supreme Court in August.

After formally leaving the California District Attorney’s Association in January of this year over differences in how to approach criminal justice reform, Verber Salazar became one of the founding members of the Progressive Prosecutor’s Alliance along with Boudin and Becton and the group has been politically active in the months that followed.

The San Joaquin District Attorney’s Office made headlines when Verber Salazar announced that her office would no longer be seeking the reimbursement of certain costs associated with prosecution because of the burden that it places on those convicted of crimes, and shortly thereafter was a signatory on a nationwide effort to create further distance between prosecutors and law enforcement officials that they may be called upon to review by pledging not to accept campaign contributions or endorsements from police unions.

The group that funded the effort, Tides Advocacy, is a San Francisco-based pass-through funding mechanism for a variety of social justice efforts. The announcement came on the website, and included prosecutors, district attorneys, and state’s attorneys from across the United States.

The amicus brief is being filed in the case People v. McDaniel – a California Supreme Court case where the court specifically asked to hear an argument on whether the state’s constitution requires that a jury agree on the death penalty beyond a reasonable doubt and “that the jury unanimously agree on the aggravating factors in death penalty cases.”

For the first time since assuming the governorship in 2018, Newsom initiated the amicus brief – also known as a “friend of the court” brief – asserting that the death penalty in California is currently applied in an “unfair and racially bias manner.”

While the organization takes a progressive approach to the controversial topic, the brief does not specifically stand in opposition to the death penalty, but instead argues for an overhaul of the way that it is currently applied in cases in California where the life of the defendant is on the line.

“California’s capital punishment scheme is now, and always has been, infected by racism,” Newsom said in the statement on Monday. “Since its inception, the American death penalty has been disproportionately applied, first, to enslaved Africans and African Americans, and, later to free Black people. With this filing, we make clear that all Californians deserve the same right to a jury trial that is fair, and that it is a matter of life and death.”

To contact reporter Jason Campbell email or call 209.249.3544.