Editorial: District Attorney’s death penalty decision is welcome news

California’s governor, DAs should see the light and launch a new initiative to abolish capital punishment

Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen’s surprising announcement Wednesday that his office will no longer seek the death penalty is welcome news. So are his reforms designed to achieve greater fairness and racial justice following the police killing of George Floyd.

Rosen says that he has become disillusioned with the death penalty. That’s understandable. We have argued for two decades that capital punishment is barbaric, costly, unfairly applied and does not prevent crime any more effectively than the prospect of life in prison.

His decision reflects California’s slowly changing attitude toward capital punishment. We hope it inspires other district attorneys and prompts a statewide initiative to repeal California’s death penalty.

Gavin Newsom should lead that effort. The governor made clear while campaigning in 2018 that he opposed the death penalty but would respect the will of the voters, who in 2016 narrowly rejected a ballot measure to stop executions.

The governor said that he wanted to lead a conversation on repealing it. That never happened. Instead, in 2019 he thumbed his nose at voters and suspended the death penalty. Now, in the midst of a raging pandemic, isn’t the time to start a death penalty debate. But it needs to be a priority when normalcy returns to California.

Rosen’s office has sought the death penalty only four times since he became district attorney in 2011. In two of the cases he rescinded the charge and in the other two juries rejected the death penalty either through acquittal or at sentencing.

Since 1978, the state has spent more than $4 billion on just 13 executions. California’s district attorneys are much more likely to seek the death penalty for Black defendants than white. And juries in California are much more likely to recommend a death sentence for a Black defendant.

In addition to no longer seeking the death penalty, Rosen is instituting a Public and Law Enforcement Integrity Team to provide additional oversight of police officer conduct in the county. The team will supplement police departments’ internal affairs units and, in San Jose and Palo Alto, the independent police auditor’s office.

“We want to weed out bad officers who shouldn’t be (on the streets) and help good officers become even better officers,” said Rosen.

The district attorney’s office will also rewrite its charging formula, a change that will impact thousands of cases every year. The aim is to stop trying to incarcerate someone for as long as possible. Instead, Rosen is writing new rules to hold defendants accountable in a way that is fair and equitable for all racial and ethnic groups.

Additional steps may be necessary. But the new approach represents a solid step toward achieving racial justice in Santa Clara County.



Man Who Saved Three Prison Guards Executed by Tennessee

The State of Tennessee executed Nicholas Sutton, 58, by electrocution last night after Governor Bill Lee denied a clemency application supported by correction staff, victims’ family members, many of the original jurors, and those whose lives Mr. Sutton has saved.

“Nick Sutton has gone from a life-taker to a life-saver,” former federal district court judge Kevin Sharp wrote in Mr. Sutton’s clemency application. No fewer than seven former and current Tennessee correction officials supported clemency for Mr. Sutton, whom they described as “an honest, kind, and trustworthy man who has used his time in prison to better himself and show that change is possible.” One wrote that Mr. Sutton’s “efforts at self-improvement and willingness to embrace change are an inspiration.”  (For the rest of the story click here.)


Just Mercy is a powerful argument against the death penalty

The film — based on Bryan Stevenson’s book and starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx — is flawed but vital.


Since 1976, for every nine Americans executed by the state, one is exonerated and released from death row — a margin of error that should terrify us all. (And yet, after years of decline, American support for the death penalty ticked up in 2018.)

That’s precisely what Just Mercy, a true story that will set your sense of injustice ablaze, aims to change.


Death Penalty Juror Describes the Effects of Condemning a Man to Death on Her

Click here for radio interview on NPR

Click here for Lindy Lou Isonhood’s TED Talk.

Participating on a death penalty jury has significant negative effects on jurors. It is not healthy for people to participate in the death of other people, no matter how guilty they are.


Ask San Mateo County DA Steve Wagstaffe to honor the moratorium on the death penalty

In the light of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order to halt the death penalty in California.

We, the voters of San Mateo County, request that you honor Gov. Newsom’s moratorium on the death penalty.  We specifically request that you immediately pledge that your office will no longer seek the death penalty in any criminal case brought in Santa Clara County.
To read the petition and sign it, go here.


Freed after 26 years on San Quentin’s death row, farmworker files suit for false imprisonment

LOS ANGELES (KABC) — False testimony sent farmworker Vicente Benevides to death row.


Now he has filed a federal lawsuit against officials who imprisoned him.


“I continue suffering from the injustice I lived through and the pain I must carry for the rest of my life,” said Benevides through a Spanish translator.

Benevides was arrested at age 41 and spent nearly 26 years at San Quentin. for the rest of the story, click here.


Santa Clara Residents Petition DA Jeff Rosen to Honor the Death Penalty Moratorium

Join other Santa Clara residents in signing the petition asking Santa Clara DA Jeff Rosen in Honoring Governor Newsom’s moratorium on California’s death penalty. To sign, click here.


When We Kill: Everything you think you know about the death penalty is wrong

By Nicholas Kristof, Opinion Columnist, The New York Times

“I hereby sentence you to death.”

The words of Judge Clifford B. Shepard filled the courtroom in Jacksonville, Fla., on Oct. 27, 1976. Shepard was sentencing Clifford Williams Jr., whom a jury had just found guilty of entering a woman’s house with a spare key entrusted to him and then shooting her dead from the foot of her bed.

It was a bizarre verdict, for forensics showed that the shots had been fired from outside the house — through the window, breaking the glass and piercing curtains and a screen. Moreover, at the time of the shooting Williams had been attending a birthday party, an alibi confirmed by many in attendance.

That didn’t matter, for Williams was an indigent black man with a public defender who didn’t call a single witness. The jury didn’t realize that he had an alibi or that the bullets had come from outside the house.

Read the rest of this article here.



A request from Sister Helen Prejean, January  2019

Dear Friend of Prisoners,

I have an invitation for you that may change your life. It surely did change mine.

Would you consider becoming a pen pal to one of the 744 men and women condemned to die in California? Whether or not your correspondence with a prisoner dramatically affects your life -busy as I know it must be – one thing’s for sure: it certainly will bring color, hope, and dignity to the thirsty, hungry soul in the locked cage who receives your freely-offered letter. I say it will bring dignity, because, coming as it does so unexpectedly, it will convey to the caged recipient as nothing else can: that whatever they may have done in the past, someone in this world recognizes that they are a human being by caring enough to write them a personal letter.

Imagine the sheer gift of your letter arriving with their name written on it -no, it’s not a mistake, that’s their name on the envelope, all right – delivered right into their hands like a shaft of light breaking into a drab, gray day-like-every-other-prison-day. A personal letter.

For me, somebody recognizes that I’m human. It’s addressed to me.

Back in 1982 I got an invitation to write a man on Louisiana’s death row – Patrick Sonnier – and the relationship that grew out of that correspondence changed my life, challenged it, enriched it, and deepened it forever. The point is that every soul deemed not worthy to live, who occupies a cramped cell in San Quentin (men prisoners) or in Chowchilla (women prisoners) is a human being with human rights, who does not deserve to be tortured and killed. And to add to the torture, waiting for death in a small cell for years and years – slogging against the gravitational pull of despair– alone, so alone.

If you do decide to correspond with a death row prisoner, do not be surprised if there is not an immediate response. Years of imprisonment can paralyze a soul. If this happens, I urge you not to give up. When I first wrote to Patrick I imaged myself being like a lighthouse, steadily sending him little beams of light, even if he didn’t respond. From the beginning, learn the prison rules about correspondence and follow them exactly. If you don’t, it’s the prisoner who suffers.

Finally, what counts the most is fidelity. What prisoners Do Not Need is a flurry of letters in the beginning and a promise of undying friendship – then……. Nothing. Better to commit to a minimum plan, perhaps a letter a month, and stick to it, no matter what. Postcards from beautiful places are welcome, especially since prisoners are so sensory deprived.

Godspeed as you open your heart and your life to human beings who happen to be prisoners.

May they be a gift in your life as surely as you will be in theirs.

From the heart,

Sister Helen Prejean

To learn more about this opportunity, please join San Diegans Against the Death Penalty for an information session. Enjoy light refreshments, meet past and current penpals, and learn how you can make a difference.

When: Thursday, January 31, 2019, either 11:30 am-1:00 pm or 7:00-8:30 pm

Where: Diocesan Pastoral Center at 3888 Paducah Drive, San Diego

RSVP: SDagainstDP@gmail.com

NOTE: If you cannot attend the information session in San Diego, but are interested in writing to a death row inmate, e-mail SDagainstDP@gmail.com for more information.



A Letter to Gov. Jerry Brown from Sister Helen Prejean

Dear Governor Brown,

As I see it, the question of whether or not you will use your power as governor to commute death sentences is soul terrain, moral ground, conscience ground, not simply political or legal ground.  That’s because the practice of condemning conscious, imaginative human beings to death, which entails confining them in a restricted space for years on end and then killing them or holding them in death cells indefinitely, is always and inherently the practice of torture.  It is the most fundamental violation of people’s dignity and human rights.

Waiting until the citizens of California end the death penalty through a ballot initiative may, indeed, be a legal solution, but, as you are well aware, legal solutions are not always moralsolutions. As Thomas Merton put it:

            In the end when we destroy the world, it will be legal.

This is what leads me to write you once again to urge you to transcend politics and legalities and to make the bold moral decision that is within your power as governor to make: end the torture of the 700 plus human beings on California’s death row by commuting their sentences of death to life imprisonment.. Make no mistake, Governor Brown, human beings, endowed with consciousness and imagination, who are condemned to death and spend long years on death row, are victims of torture. ”Subjected to extreme mental or physical assault while rendered defenseless” is the definition of torture by the U.N Universal Declaration of Human Rights and by Amnesty International. And for over thirty years by accompanying people on death row as their spiritual advisor, I’ve seen this torture close-up, including the suffering of men and women on California’s death row.

You are governor in a state that practices torture, Governor Brown. I believe this is the deepest moral question facing you: will you allow the torture of human beings on death row to continue after you leave office if you refuse to commute the death sentences? 

How many years will it take before the citizens of California finally end the death penalty through a ballot initiative?  Will your conscience permit you to take refuge in a legal or political justification for refusing to use your power to stop the torture of the women and men on your state’s death row, knowing full well that you had the power to stop it?   

As yet, neither the U.S. Supreme Court nor Congress can bring itself to acknowledge the torture inherent in the death penalty, but I am sure that in your Christ- conscience you recognize it.   Just as, well in advance of the Court and Congress, you have had the keen moral sense to recognize our national failure to deal with climate change and the human rights of immigrants at our borders- and had the moral courage to take bold steps to deal squarely with these blatant moral failures.

I pray to see you go down in history as the person who used his authority to empty death row and stop the torture of the human beings confined there.

Be bold, Governor Brown. Be Christ. Be Gandhi. Be your deepest, truest self, which, like Bethlehem’s star, you so clearly manifested in your words to Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition in 1992:

“There is a moral dimension to politics where the line of tactics, and compromise, and mere pragmatism has to stop. And the commitment to integrity, and life, and the values we know hold a civilized country together – that has to be maintained.”

As your sister in Christ I am praying mightily for you.

From the heart,

Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ.


Governor Brown Should Leave No One on Death Row When He Leaves Office

Please click on the link above and sign the petition to Governor Brown to commute the death penalty convictions of all those currently on California’s death row. Then share it on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter–all your social media.

Pope Francis Declares Death Penalty Unacceptable in All Cases

ROME — Pope Francis has declared the death penalty wrong in all cases, a definitive change in church teaching that is likely to challenge Catholic politicians, judges and officials who have argued that their church was not entirely opposed to capital punishment.

Most California governor candidates oppose the death penalty–but may have to preside over executions

Most California governor candidates oppose the death penalty — but may have to preside over executions

Supreme Court sends death-row case back to lower courts

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court sent a death-row case back to the lower courts Jan. 8 in a summary ruling.

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In a 6-3 vote, the high court ordered the federal appeals court based in Atlanta to examine claims that a juror in the case of death-row inmate Keith Tharpe voted for the death sentence because Tharpe is black.

The U.S. Supreme Court had already halted Tharpe’s scheduled execution the night it was initially scheduled in September. Now the court is giving Tharpe — convicted of killing Jacquelin Freeman, his sister-in-law, 27 years ago — another chance to have a court hear his claims of racial bias on his sentencing.

Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the dissent and was joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, said the court’s unsigned opinion demonstrated “ceremonial hand-wringing” and he predicted Tharpe would lose his appeal. For the rest of the article, click here.

For death penalty abolitionists, 2017 offered a series of surprises, beginning with the results of the 2016 November elections.

California, Nebraska and Oklahoma all had referendums to abolish the death penalty during the election. In each of the states, residents defeated the measures.

Those defeats provided anti-death-penalty advocates with a “wake-up call,” according to Karen Clifton, executive director of Catholic Mobilizing Network. Clifton told NCR that she felt the passing of the referendums would have been a “natural trajectory,” reflecting early poll results. For complete article, click here.

Man Who Saved Three Prison Guards Executed by Tennessee