Altar for fallen Salinas police officer Jorge “JD” Alvarado

An altar for fallen Salinas police officer Jorge “JD” Alvarado at a vigil held Tuesday, March 1.

Death row in California is in a sort of purgatory. The last time an inmate was executed in the state was sixteen-and-a-half years ago, on Jan. 17, 2006, when 76-year-old Clarence Ray Allen was put to death after 23 years on death row. 

Since then, California voters declined to repeal the death penalty (Prop. 62 in 2016 received 47 percent of the vote), and Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order in 2019 establishing a moratorium on the death penalty. The order, however, does not change or commute any sentences, and 676 inmates in California currently have been sentenced to death. In the past 25 years, 15 condemned California inmates have been executed. 

It means that while capital punishment remains on the books, in practice it is a long wait—and defendants facing a death penalty trial also have additional rights than those who are not facing the death penalty, which can slow down an already-slow court system. 

It is that landscape that led Monterey County District Attorney Jeannine Pacioni and her staff to decide not to pursue the death penalty against Gustavo Morales, who is charged with first-degree murder in the killing of Salinas Police Officer Jorge "JD" Alvarado while conducting a traffic stop on Feb. 25. Pacioni said in a statement on Nov. 7 the decision not to seek the death penalty was made in consultation with Alvarado's family. 

In a preliminary hearing in August, Judge Gilbert T. Brown heard the basic evidence against Morales, and determined there is enough probable cause to proceed with a trial. Prosecutors say he initially complied with a traffic stop and pulled over, but then almost immediately exited his vehicle, and began shooting at Officer Alvarado—who was alone in his patrol car—with a semiautomatic handgun. Alvarado was able to return fire, striking Morales' left hand, before he died at the scene. Morales later checked himself into the hospital for the bullet wound in his hand, leading to his arrest. 

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Morales is set to next appear in court on Dec. 15. 

Independent of the court proceedings, Salinas City Council is set to consider renaming Murphy Street to JD Alvarado Circle when they meet today, Nov. 15, at 4pm. 

An ad hoc committee comprising the city director of community development, director of public works, police chief, fire chief and city engineer was convened on Oct. 27 to review the request to rename Murphy Street. The committee, in consultation with the postmaster and the Monterey County Emergency Dispatch, unanimously approved and recommend the City Council proceed with renaming the street. 

Murphy Street is next to the newly constructed Salinas Police Service Headquarters on East Alisal Street. It is a one-way street just to the west of the new police building. 

Sara Rubin loves long public meetings, red pens and reading (on newsprint). She has been editor of the Monterey County Weekly since 2016, and has been on staff since 2010.

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