On Monday, 45 years after the start of his decade-long reign of terror in California, the Golden State Killer appeared in a university ballroom-turned-courthouse to plead guilty to 13 murders and 13 charges of kidnapping for purposes of robbery, admitting to an additional 62 charges of rape and abduction for which the statute of limitations has passed. Joseph James DeAngelo, a 74-year-old former police officer, waived his right to a trial and accepted 11 terms of life without parole, served with 15 concurrent life sentences. In return for pleading guilty, DeAngelo will be spared the death penalty.
As district attorneys from eight California counties narrated the circumstances of his crimes, DeAngelo answered “yes,” “guilty,” and “I admit” in a shaky, feeble voice.
“His monikers reflect the sweeping geographical impact of his crimes,” Sacramento County Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney Thien Ho said. “The Visalia Ransacker, the East Area Rapist, the Original Nightstalker, and the Golden State Killer.” The Golden State Killer nickname was given to the perpetrator of the crimes by blogger and author Michelle McNamara, who wrote a series of stories on the case in Los Angeles magazine before her untimely death in 2016. (Read her original story, “In the Footsteps of a Killer,” here.)
DeAngelo is believed to have been active from at least 1973 to 1986, during which time his crime spree involved attacks on some 106 individuals. Thirteen people were murdered.
After decades of searching for the then-unknown assailant, law enforcement got a break in the case in 2018 by using crime-scene DNA and a genealogy service to identify one of DeAngelo’s distant relatives and then DeAngelo himself.
In the aftermath of DeAngelo’s arrest, experts and privacy advocates began to question the ethics of giving law enforcement access to troves of genetic data.
“This is really tough,” Malia Fullerton, an ethicist at the University of Washington who studies DNA forensics, told the New York Times. “He was a horrible man and it is good that he was identified, but does the end justify the means?”
The F.B.I. and state law enforcement entities maintain their own databases of DNA collected from convicted criminals and, in some cases, people simply accused of crimes. In the case of the Golden State Killer, California police relied on a genealogy website, GEDmatch.
Prosecutors agreed to the plea deal for a number of reasons, including DeAngelo’s acknowledgment of wrongdoing at a “relatively early stage of the legal proceedings,” Deputy District Attorney Amy Holliday said. Holloway also cited “the wishes of the victims and their next of kin” among the reasons.
The pandemic was also a factor. In a case that has already stretched decades, the trial experienced delays as a result of COVID-19 court closures.
“The time for justice stands in front of us now,” Holliday said. “In the interest of justice for the victims, the families, and the communities which we serve, this place, this plea, at this time, is in the best interest of the people of the state of California.”
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