It was Alameda County Assistant District Attorney Darryl Stallworth’s first death penalty case and it was a big one. “When I got called into the office and was told I was going to try this case I was fired up. I was excited to be recognized . . . It was a promotion,” Stallworth says.
The defendant was 18-year-old Demarcus Ralls, a member of an Oakland gang that called itself the “Nut Cases,” that terrorized Oakland during a months-long crime spree in 2002-2003. Ralls confessed to killing five people during those 10 weeks, and robbing 18 others.
When Stallworth and his team began interviewing the victims’ families and witnessed their grief and anger, he told himself they would find closure once the trial was over and Ralls was sentenced to death. But doubt started nagging at him when the crime scene and autopsy photos were displayed in court. He saw the effect the photos had on the families, saw how they had to relive the experience over and over again during testimony, and thought that instead of gaining a sense of closure, they were revisiting the worst experience of their lives every day.
Still he persevered. “I internalized it,” he says. “I told myself the jury’s going to make the decision, not me. I am part of the process, this is what I am trained to do.”
But Stallworth is African-American, and grew up in Compton. And when he looked at Ralls in the courtroom, “I understood that there but for the grace of God, it could have been me sitting there.” But unlike Ralls, whose attorney presented weeks of testimony documenting his violent, chaotic childhood, Stallworth was raised in a stable environment, with loving parents and two brothers and a sister. “I grew up with a father from the South, with a military background, and he and my mother sent us to Catholic schools. My parents, teachers and coaches were phenomenal” he says. The result was that all four grew up to lead stable, comfortable lives, with families, and good jobs.
Ralls’ background couldn’t have been more different. His role model was his older brother, “a stone cold killer,” Stallworth says. In and out of foster and group homes throughout his childhood, little education, surrounded by drug and alcohol abuse, Ralls never had a chance.
“When I looked at Demarcus Ralls in court three years after the murders, I saw a 21-year-old kid who appeared to be lost in all of the madness,” Stallworth says. “I was told by his defense attorney that he really had no idea what he was facing until I gave my opening statement [in court]. He later threw up in the holding area before being transported back to jail.”
Ralls’ youth was probably one of the factors that made the jury come back with a sentence of life without parole, instead of death.
“I lost my first death penalty case and I wasn’t upset, I wasn’t disappointed,” Stallworth says. “And I knew I didn’t want to do this anymore. It wasn’t that I didn’t think I was a good trial attorney, I just wanted to use my experience and skills and use them in a different way.” The doubts that began when he first started on the Ralls case had grown to a conviction that the death penalty should be abolished.
It’s time, Stallworth says, for Americans to “stop letting fear be their navigator. People who support the death penalty are too much dug in on the emotional part of it. It’s not a deterrent. Killing Demarcus Ralls wouldn’t have made us any safer. And we can save so much time and money with a sentence of life without parole.”
Stallworth didn’t try another death penalty case after Ralls. He left the DA’s office in 2007, after 15 years. He is now a criminal defense attorney with his own practice in Oakland.
“To use my skills and experience to help navigate people through the criminal justice system on the other side is, to me, a bigger service,” he says. “All the things I had done as a prosecutor prepared me for what I do now.”