42 Alameda County death row inmates on reprieve after governor’s order

Karen Chow/Senior Staff

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California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order Wednesday, suspending California’s death penalty and placing the 737 current death row inmates — among them 42 people from Alameda County — on reprieve.

The executive order passed the moratorium of California’s death penalty, the repeal of the lethal injection and the closing of the San Quentin State Prison death row on the grounds of the disproportionate effects of the death penalty on “people of color, people with mental disabilities and people who cannot afford costly legal representation.” The order also cites the high cost of the death penalty in California — $5 billion since 1978 — as a reason for the suspension.

The executive order was endorsed by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, who noted the possibility of innocent people being placed on death row and the racial bias of death penalty convictions.

“Capital punishment, since its inception, has been plagued by racial bias and gross disparities,” Skinner said in a press release. “The fact is, a person of color is far more likely to be sentenced to death if they’re convicted of killing a white person. That’s unconscionable. It’s also immoral. Gov. Newsom has done the right thing.”

Alameda County had a high rate of death row convictions, ranking fourth out of the 24 largest California counties in annual death sentences from 2000 to 2007, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. In that period, Alameda County murder charges were almost twice as likely to yield a death penalty as the rest of the state.

“Executions don’t keep us safe, and it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars,” Newsom said in a statement. “The National Academy of Sciences has found that 1 in 25 people sentenced to death is likely innocent. And since 1973, there have been 164 people sentenced to death who were later exonerated. … The death penalty runs counter to our fundamental understanding of human rights and values. As governor, I cannot and will not oversee the execution of anyone.”

In California, out of the more than 800 people placed on death row since 1978, 13 have been executed. As of 2013, there were 42 death row inmates in Alameda County, according to the Death Penalty Information Center website.

Although the death penalty faces moratorium with Newsom’s executive order, the governor specified that the executive order does not call for any increased leniency in California’s criminal justice system.  

“No one on death row is getting out of prison, and no one will avoid swift and severe punishment from our state for committing violent crimes,” Newsom said in a statement. “In recent years, our state and our nation have wrestled with what we stand for and who we are. We can no longer allow the death penalty to be a part of what defines us. That begins in California.”

Contact Ben Klein at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @BenKlein_dc‏.