In Yolo County, just west of Sacramento, the decision whether or not to pursue the death penalty rests with one man, Dist. Atti. Jeff Reisig.
Of course, the same is true in California’s other 57 counties, where district attorneys ultimately make the call. But, as Reisig told me when I sat down with him recently, “It’s completely fair to say that in 58 counties in California, every DA probably does it differently.”
Reisig may soon face that decision again, for about the 30th time in more than 16 years in office, in the case of the young man charged with a series of stabbings that have terrorized the nearby college town of Davis. Over the course of a few days in April, two men were killed and a woman was stabbed through the fabric of her tent, leaving her alive but in critical condition.
The suspect in the wave of unexplained violence is Carlos Reales Dominguez, 21, a former UC Davis student who has pleaded not guilty and is still being held in Yolo County Jail.
It’s the kind of chilling and inexplicable case that leaves many of us divided on what justice might look like if Dominguez is ultimately found competent to stand trial – especially in a state where the death penalty remains enshrined in law. pounds, but has been impossible in practice since Gov Gavin Newsom imposed a moratorium with an executive order in 2019 and closed the state death chamber at San Quentin State Prison.
So I asked Reisig how he would decide – and why.
Reisig can’t speak in specific terms about the Dominguez case, of course, but he was willing to walk me through the process he uses in general, and how the law and the feelings of Yolo residents weigh in on it.
First, he told me he didn’t care about the Newsom executive freezing.
In fact, Reisig said he considered it an overbearing move for the governor to insert himself into the death penalty debate after voters in 2012 and 2016 decided to keep the option on the books. He points out that another governor could overrule Newsom’s order, although in dark blue California that’s unlikely.
The moratorium “has no basis, no bearing on whether or not I will do my job,” Reisig said. “If the voters, you know, get another chance on an initiative and they reject [the death penalty], so be it. It is democracy. But what we’re going through right now, with the governor’s self-imposed moratorium, I think, really isn’t democracy.
Reisig pointed out that only a few types of cases carry the death penalty — most often first-degree capital murder cases with a narrow set of special circumstances such as waiting or killing a police officer. So, the first part of his ruling just skims the law to see if a case qualifies.
On the face of it, this case might be, given the charges. But at a recent court hearing, a judge ordered an evaluation of Dominguez’s mental capacity, and he unsuccessfully asked to represent himself. This first jurisdictional hearing will take place on June 20 and will likely begin a lengthy process to determine his fitness to stand trial.
For Reisig, if a suspect is determined to have a mental illness that played a significant role in the commission of the crime, he will not pursue capital punishment. He considers it “deeply” wrong to seek the death penalty for someone who does not understand his actions, which seems obvious. But I promise you, some prosecutors would challenge a finding of mental incompetence no matter what.
If the mental capacity is there and the case qualifies legally, Reisig begins his own internal investigation which examines not only the crime, but the circumstances that make it worse than the average capital murder (aggravating factors), as well as mitigating factors. such as if the person was under duress which may offer an explanation.
He also considers “Special K” evidence, named after its position in the applicable criminal code, to be essentially a catch-all for anything relevant.
“And for that, you literally go back to birth,” he said. “You look, has this person been violent throughout their life? Are they the Charles Manson type? Or is it just like one and done?
Interestingly, although a DA may consider age in the final decision, age is not considered a mitigating factor, meaning suspects don’t get a break just because they are young.
“Just because someone is young, in their twenties or whatever, does not mean by law that [they’re] ineligible or unsuitable for the death penalty,” he said.
Once all that evidence is gathered, he gets his best advisers together and they chop it up. “We talk about it, we debate it,” he told me. “We dig, we ask more questions. Sometimes these conversations can take hours, sometimes days, sometimes we think about it for, you know, weeks.
But once that team makes a recommendation, “I make the decision,” he said.
Part of that last call is whether he thinks he can win at trial.
Reisig calls Yolo “the most liberal county in Bakersfield on the Oregon border”. It’s one of the reasons why, in his nearly two decades as chief prosecutor, he chose to pursue the death penalty only once: in the 2008 murder of the Yolo County Sheriff’s Deputy Jose Antonio Diaz (although he inherited a death penalty case from his predecessor as well).
“It comes up a lot, where the case at first glance, we can all look at it and say, ‘Yeah, this guy is really the extreme. Like he was a psychopath. It’s awful. It fulfills all the statutory elements. But will a jury of Yolo County people go for it? And that, I mean, changes from county to county, doesn’t it? »
Reisig said that because “people have such strong opinions” about the death penalty, it can even be difficult to get a jury elected in a capital case. He points out that, legally, a juror must be prepared to consider either life without the possibility of parole or the death penalty. “Well, good luck,” he said of finding jurors willing to weigh the two.
“People come in and say, ‘No, I will never vote for the death penalty’ or ‘This guy, this person should always get the death penalty,'” he said. “And so I don’t want to pursue a death sentence against anyone I know, in my experience I have no chance of getting 12 people to agree.”
In the Diaz murder case, Reisig was sentenced to death in 2011 against Marco Topete after a jury deliberated for days. Reisig said he and the defense team screened more than 600 jurors before sitting their panel — a difficult task in a county of about 200,000 people.
In the case he inherited from a former district attorney, the 2005 murder of CHP officer Andy Stevens, the jury took just two days to decide the death sentence for Brendt Anthony Volarvich, then 22 years old and a member of a white pride gang called the Peckerwoods. .
Before leaving, I asked Reisig if he was for or against the death penalty, and he told me that it was not about his personal beliefs, although “if people vote for the abolition of the death penalty, I will lose nothing sleeping on it.
Personally, I am against it precisely because there is so much discretion in its application. How can we ever be sure it’s right, regardless of the moral debate?
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, support for the death penalty has dropped dramatically across the country, as have the number of executions and death sentences. In 1999, executions reached their highest annual number with 98 people put to death. Death sentences peaked a few years earlier in 1996, with 315 death sentences. In 2022, there were 18 executions and 20 new death sentences handed down across the United States
Two of those 2,022 death sentences have occurred in California, and nearly 700 people (including more than 20 women) live on death row here.
But California voters remain ambivalent about changing our law. A 2021 UC Berkeley poll examining the possibility of resubmitting the issue to voters found that 44% said they would vote to repeal the state’s death penalty law, 35% would vote for the hold and 21% remained undecided.
So, as Reisig points out, the death penalty can be used sparingly, but it’s on the books and prosecutors will continue to consider it. This means that no matter where each of us stands, Reisig’s transparency matters – it allows us to understand how these life and death decisions are made.
Because they’re still being made, every day, across California.