Federal judge orders Alameda County to review death penalty cases

OAKLAND, CA - MAY13: The Alameda County Superior Courthouse is seen in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, May 13, 2021. (Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images)
The Alameda County Superior Courthouse is seen in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, May 13, 2021. (Jane Tyska / Digital First Media / East Bay Times via Getty Images)
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Dozens of death penalty convictions in Alameda County must be reviewed after prosecutors there were found to have intentionally excluded Black and Jewish jurors during a murder trial in 1995, a federal judge ordered.

Handwritten notes from prosecutors in the decades-old case suggests the attorneys were involved in "serious misconduct," but Alameda County Dist. Atty. Pamela Price on Monday said additional evidence suggests more death penalty cases may have been tainted by prosecutors trying to keep Black and Jewish jurors from murder trials.

"It's not limited to one or two prosecutors, but a variety of prosecutors," Price said during a news conference Monday. "The evidence that we have uncovered suggests plainly that many people did not receive a fair trial in Alameda County and as a result, we have to review all the files."

The order was by U.S. Federal Court District Judge Vince Chhabria after the notes from prosecutors were discovered in the case of Earnest Dykes, who was convicted in 1993 of the death of a 9-year-old during an attempted robbery. He was sentenced to death.

Dykes' petition to review his case has been pending in federal court for years.

Read more: Prosecutors put men on death row. This California D.A. wants to take them off

"These notes — especially when considered in conjunction with evidence presented in other cases — constitute strong evidence that, in prior decades, prosecutors from the office were engaged in a pattern of serious misconduct, automatically excluding Jewish and African American jurors in death penalty cases," Chhabria wrote in a decision to make the notes public.

In a portion of the notes released by the district attorney's office, prosecutors wrote and underlined the word, "Jewish" about a prospective juror in the case.

Price did not give more specifics about the evidence prosecutors uncovered in the cases being reviewed, but said it included notes as well as transcripts about what questions prospective jurors were asked.

The Alameda prosecutors aren't the only officials in the county's criminal justice system to have been accused of improperly excluding people from a jury. In 2006, the California Supreme Court rejected claims that an Alameda County Superior Court judge had advised a prosecutor to remove Jewish jurors from a death penalty trial.

Attorneys are allowed to remove a certain number of prospective jurors from a case, but are not allowed to do so because of their race, gender, or religion.

Read more: 3 Alameda police officers charged with involuntary manslaughter in 2021 death of Mario Gonzalez

The Alameda County D.A.'s office has identified 35 death penalty cases going back to 1977 that are now under review, Price said. If additional issues are discovered, the review may widen to include other cases that did not involve death sentences, she said.

Price, a former civil rights and defense attorney, was elected Alameda County D.A. in 2022 after pledging to reform the criminal justice system and hold police accountable. She is now facing a recall campaign.

Price said Monday that the decision to review the cases was not just an order handed down from a federal judge, but an ethical issue.

"This is not about left or right or any kind of politics," she said Monday. "This is about ethics."

Because of the evidence uncovered, she said, the office has a duty to review all of the cases from the county that resulted in a death sentence, but the sentence has yet to be carried out.

"This is horrifying," said Michael Collins, senior director of Color Of Change, a nonprofit civil rights advocacy organization. "The prosecutors and judges implicated in this scandal engaged in racist and antisemitic practices and sent people to their deaths."

Read more: California speeds plans to empty San Quentin's death row

Color Of Change is one of several organizations involved in the Alameda County D.A. Accountability Table, a coalition of groups looking to address criminal justice issues in the area.

"For too long, prosecutors have sought to win at all costs, even if it means engaging in constitutional violations, civil rights violations and antisemitic and racially disparate practices that result in people sentenced to death," Collins said.

Collins said Color Of Change supported the review, and he commended Price for publicly addressing it. He said the organization was also calling on the U.S. Department of Justice to open a civil rights investigation.

Price said her office is in contact with Dykes' attorneys about how to proceed on his case, but discussions are still pending. "We don't know yet what is appropriate," she said.

Dykes, who was 20 at the time, was convicted of killing 9-year-old Lance Clark and attempting to kill the boy's grandmother, Bernice Clark, during an attempted robbery, according to court records.

He was unemployed when he tried to rob Clark, who owned the apartment building he lived in, court records say.

Read more: How many people die each year in jails and prisons? No one knows

The Alameda County District Attorney's office is also reaching out to victims and survivors in the cases affected by the federal review order, Price said.

"We recognize how terrible this is, and it is something we have to make right," she said.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced in 2019 a moratorium on the death penalty, but hundreds of people remain in the state's death row.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.