The state of the death penalty in California has been in flux over the last decade or so as various referendums to outlaw and replace capital punishment have failed. In 2019, Gavin Newsome took matters into his own hands and an executive order establishing a moratorium on the death penalty, giving the more than 700 California death-row inmates a glimmer of hope.
While discussions and debates of capital punishment have played second fiddle to a global pandemic and political tension surrounding the police, the case of Kenneth Earl Gay has brought the issue back to the state’s collective consciousness.
The Kenneth Earl Gay Case
In 1983, Gay was tried and convicted of the murder of police officer Paul Verna. However, since that time, the California Supreme Court has twice overturned his death sentence and most recently vacated his conviction. As a result, Los Angeles prosecutors are going to have to try him again.
What makes the case even more complicated is that incoming District Attorney George Gascon has indicated that he will not be seeking the death penalty in Gay’s case. The new DA has cited the finality of the death penalty and the high cost of carrying out as to why he plans not to pursue the ultimate punishment.
He did note, however, how difficult it must be for the Verna family to have to go through proceedings again and the very fact that he is planning to follow through on plans to prosecute rather than simply drop charges indicates that he thinks there is a case against Gay.
While this has been to the relief of Gay and his many supporters including those who believe his initial representation was inadequate, it has come as a disappointment to the family of officer Verna.
Those who question the veracity with which Gay’s first lawyer represented him are not completely off point. Critics argue that Daye Shinn, the first attorney who represented Gay, failed to submit relevant evidence during the trial—evidence that possibly could have caused the jury to find differently. Furthermore, Shinn was later disbarred, bringing even more controversy into the case.
However, the political climate—especially as it pertains to police officers and departments—is very different now than it was in the 1980s. Some wonder if jurors today, who might be influenced or swayed by the defund the police movement, will be unsympathetic to the killing of a police officer and prone to finding Gay not guilty.
It should be noted that Gay was not the only person convicted of Officer Verna. Another man, Raynard Cummings, was also convicted for the murder, as prosecutors argued he fired the first shot and Gay fired the remaining shots that killed Verna. Cummings’ conviction is not in question at this time and he remains on death row in California’s San Quentin prison.
What to Expect at Trial
Finally, while the trial isn’t set to begin until January 14th of the new year, legal maneuvering and posturing has already begun. Gay and his team filed a defense motion seeking the exclusion of any information from the many previous proceedings related to his case. While the judge denied the motion, it is expected that Gay’s lawyers will appeal.
If the appeal is eventually won, it could make convicting Gay this time around even more unlikely. In such a scenario it would not be impossible for Gay, who has spent nearly 40 years in prison, to be released within the next few months. Either way, there is little doubt that all eyes will be on the Gay retrial come the new year.