(NNPA) - How could a young Black man from Compton, Calif. make a living putting Black people in prison? Although rarely voiced aloud, many undoubtedly asked themselves this question when they found out I was a prosecutor.
The question crossed my own mind 16 years ago when I applied for the job. Could I make a living sending hundreds, if not thousands of Black people to prison and maybe even a few to the death chamber? I tried not to overdramatize it. I rationalized it by telling myself that not everyone would be Black. Unfortunately, the vast majority were. I'm reminded of something Richard Pryor once said: "I went to prison looking for justice and that is just what I found, 'Just Us.' "
So, why did I become a prosecutor? I was born in 1965 when the Civil Rights movement was winding down and gangs and drugs were becoming rampant in my own backyard. In the '70s one could be attacked for wearing the wrong gang colors or being in the wrong neighborhood. In the '80s the crack epidemic made drive-by shootings with assault weapons a daily occurrence. Growing up, I witnessed horrendous violence in my neighborhood. By the time I was 18, I knew enough about crime in the Black community to write a thesis. I had hoped, perhaps naively, that by becoming a prosecutor, I could help stem the violence and promote safety and justice in my community.
Eventually, however, I was confronted with a case so horrible that it caused me to rethink my career, my belief that I was making my community safer, and ultimately my support for the death penalty.
On March 24, 2003, I was asked if I would be willing to seek a conviction and death sentence for a young Black man named Demarcus Ralls. Ralls and his seven co-defendants murdered seven people, injured a dozen more, and robbed and assaulted at least 30 others. It was the first time in my life that I had been asked to think seriously about the death penalty.
This would be a career-making case, and it took me less than a minute to decide that I would proudly accept the challenge. At the time, it seemed like a no-brainer. Why shouldn't this cold-blooded killer who terrorized his own community get the ultimate punishment?
During the trial, grizzly details about Rall's violent and abusive childhood emerged. It soon became evident that the violence Ralls had inflicted closely resembled the violence he had experienced as a child. After hours of testimony, I began to wonder: Did Demarcus Ralls, and other young, Black men like him, ever have a chance, or was his fate sealed from the beginning of his violent, abusive childhood?
After two months, the jury found him guilty. The time came for me to stand up and make my argument for death. I had all the evidence any prosecutor would want – photos of victims and bloody pavement, bullet casings, and testimony from the surviving families – but this case, which once seemed so cut and dry, now seemed very complex. The system had failed Demarcus. He had slipped through the cracks. I was certain he needed to be removed from society, but I couldn't figure out what the state of California would gain by executing him. Fortunately, the jury sentenced Demarcus Ralls to life without parole.
I eventually realized that our limited tax dollars could be better spent on effective violence prevention programs, especially those aimed at preventing child abuse and treating drug and alcohol addiction, than on sending more young Black men to prison and occasionally to the death chamber. The death penalty system disproportionately impacts people of color and doesn't really serve the victims of crime – they just get dragged through years of appeals while the state's focus is shifted to the fate of the offender. What's more, the death penalty costs ten times more than the alternative punishment, life without parole and it doesn't make our communities any safer than simply locking up criminals forever.
To that endeavor, I now spend my time speaking to community groups, churches, and professional organizations, including the National Black Prosecutors Association, about the lessons I learned as a prosecutor and how our scarce public safety resources are wasted on the death penalty.
Darryl Stallworth worked as an Alameda County Deputy District Attorney for 15 years. In 2008, he joined Death Penalty Focus as their Law Enforcement Outreach Coordinator. He has also produced a series of television shows titled "Staying Out of Jail." This commentary originally appeared in the August 19 – 25 edition of the Los Angeles Sentinel.