Prosecutorial discretion, hidden costs, and the death penalty: The case of Los Angeles county

Nicholas Petersen, Mona Lynch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


This Article analyzes the processing of homicide cases in Los Angeles County from 1996 to 2008 to measure the time-costs of pursuing cases capitally and to examine how prosecutorial discretion in homicide charging is exercised in this jurisdiction. To answer these questions, we explore two related outcomes: (1) the odds of a "death-notice" filing and (2) time-to-resolution. According to Model 1, death-eligible cases with multiple special circumstances are significantly more likely to be prosecuted capitally than those with only one special circumstance. In light of the limited financial information regarding capital punishment at the county level, Models 2-4 utilize Cox Proportional Hazard regression to investigate the time-costs associated with death eligibility. Estimates indicate that capital cases take significantly longer to reach resolution than noncapital cases. Furthermore, the filing of special circumstances increases survival time in noncapital cases. In addition to highlighting the time-costs of trying cases capitally, these findings reveal the time-costs associated with the prosecution of special circumstance cases, even when the death penalty is not ultimately sought. By examining capital costs at the county level, this analysis contributes to the ongoing policy reform debate in California that aims to address the state's "dysfunctional" death penalty system.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1233-1274
Number of pages42
JournalJournal of Criminal Law and Criminology
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2012
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Law


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