The murder of Deputy Ryan Clinkunbroomer, a horrible and senseless tragedy, hits close to home. It has moved many to discuss capital punishment again, something that most of us feel strongly about one way or the other. Where do I stand? I’m not “pro-capital punishment,” but I’m also not “anti-capital punishment.” I’m for respecting the will of the public by following the laws they enact.
I spent almost my entire adult life serving the public, first in the Army and now a prosecutor in the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office for the past 17 years. I’m currently assigned to the Complex Child Abuse unit, and I’m running against George Gascón to be your next L.A. County district attorney. As of today, I’m handling 17 active child murder cases, one right here in the Santa Clarita Valley. I was the lead prosecutor in the case of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, an innocent little boy who was brutally tortured for over eight months and eventually murdered by his mom and her boyfriend. The boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, was sentenced to death on June 7, 2018.
My wife is a 16-year veteran of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and is from right here in Santa Clarita. Even though she is a detective now, because LASD is short-staffed, she has always worked patrol at least two to three times per week. I want the mother of my children to come home safely. I want all our deputies and officers to come home safely. I worry about that every day.
So, let’s talk about capital punishment. Twelve jurors from the community, when they sit on a capital case, have to decide if they are going to sentence a person to life without the possibility of parole or death. That is a terrible weight. And that is a decision every juror will have to live with for the rest of their life. A prosecutor who handles a capital case will have to live with that case for the remainder of their life. I certainly do. The judge who sentences someone to death will have to live with that for the rest of their life. It is as serious as it gets. It should never be taken lightly. And, for all the people who shout, cheer, or tweet about giving someone “death,” I hope they recognize it is an incredibly heavy burden for everyone involved.
That being said, capital punishment was passed by California voters in 2012. It was again passed by California voters in 2016. It is the will of the voters and the law in California. And, despite what ideologues claim, the death penalty can only be considered for first-degree murder with a special circumstance. So, what do I believe? I believe every case is unique, and the decision to pursue the death penalty, or not, cannot be made wholesale if we respect the law and the will of the public. Every case should be filed based upon the law and the evidence. The most heinous crimes require the most serious punishment. So if a person intentionally murders a child by torturing them to death, or sexually molests, then murders a child, or goes into a school, synagogue, or church and commits mass murder, or intentionally kills an on-duty police officer, AND there is 100% evidence (evidence beyond all doubt), capital punishment should be an option; it is required to be considered by the law of the state of California.
The process to pursue the death penalty is, as it should be, an onerous one. First, the case needs to first go through a preliminary hearing or grand jury. Then, that case needs to go through a rigorous special circumstances committee made up of experienced deputy district attorneys where all the evidence is presented, and the defense also gets to make an in-person presentation of any mitigation (so all the evidence from both sides is presented). Then, if the committee makes a decision to seek capital punishment, that case goes to trial before a jury. And then all 12 jurors must first convict the accused, then separately unanimously agree to death. And then, a judge must agree to sentence the defendant to death. To be clear, there is a separate jury trial for punishment versus guilt. The jury must return two verdicts. That is, the jury can, even after a defendant is found guilty of murder with special circumstances, opt to not apply the death penalty.
I believe in the process. I’ve been through the process. I believe in the law. Most importantly, I believe in discretion. The most heinous cases, with 100% evidence, going through this careful process is discretion. Never doing something is not discretion. That is a violation of the law, and the ultimate disrespect to the will of the voters. It is hubris, not justice.
Regarding the tragic and senseless death of Deputy Ryan Clinkunbroomer, George Gascón said: “If I thought that seeking the death penalty was gonna bring Ryan back to us, I will seek it without any reservation. But it won’t.” That is not applying the law or the job of the district attorney. Gascón’s own words clearly show he is not suited for office. It takes both character and legitimate ability to be an effective DA. Gascón has never even tried one felony case, let alone a special-circumstance murder. No matter what the punishment is, no one can bring back a murder victim. That is not our charge. Our charge is to pursue justice. Capital punishment is to say to the entire community that the worst crimes deserve the most serious punishment. It is definitely a deterrent. It is to say to everyone, in those limited cases, if you brutally murder a police officer, torture a child to death, rape and murder a child or commit mass murder, you will risk losing your life by facing the most serious punishment available under the law. Still, this is only after a rigorous process and a jury of 12, after hearing all the evidence, unanimously agrees to a death sentence.
People can disagree and we should have healthy debate. But it is not up to the DA to make the law. It is the DA’s responsibility to follow it. I would use my discretion as the elected DA of Los Angeles to follow the law and fairly seek justice for all.
My family offers our heartfelt prayers and sincerest condolences to the fiancée, parents, family, friends, community, and fellow deputies of Ryan Clinkunbroomer. My family is heartbroken. We all are. No one can bring back a victim of murder. But an elected DA can and should make victims and their surviving families as whole as they can, and bring justice to those who seek to destroy our communities. It requires hard and difficult decisions. That is called leadership. Our community deserves that. Ryan’s family does as well. We all do.
Jonathan Hatami is a 17-year veteran child abuse prosecutor in the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office, and has been a Santa Clarita resident for more than 35 years.