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Calif. county DA wants convicts off death row

Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen is petitioning the county Superior Court to resentence 14 men — all being held in San Quentin State Prison — to terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole

San Quentin State Prison

Inmates exercise outside in the yard at San Quentin State Prison on Wednesday, July 26, 2023. In March 2023, Gov. Newsom announced a plan to transform the prison into the San Quentin Rehabilitation Center. The transformation is being guided by a team of correctional, reentry and rehabilitation experts.

Paul Kitagaki Jr./TNS

By Robert Salonga
Bay Area News Group

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Building on a 2020 pledge to stop pursuing the death penalty, Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen is now seeking to remove all South Bay capital prisoners from California’s death row.

This week, Rosen’s office is petitioning the county Superior Court to resentence 14 men — all being held in San Quentin State Prison — to terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The reasoning Rosen gave in court filings is grounded on the death penalty being an irreversible punishment that requires an equity of due process that can’t be guaranteed. There is also, he added, a “diminishing likelihood” of executions resuming in part because of a moratorium by Gov. Gavin Newsom , who has also initiated the shutdown of the state’s death row.

“The state is dismantling death row, and it is time we recognize this reality and dismantle these sentences as well,” Rosen states in one of the resentencing motions.

Also in the motions — one filed for every condemned man convicted in Santa Clara County who agrees to being taken off death row — Rosen acknowledges “the enduring and indescribable pain” suffered by crime victims’ families and friends that “cannot be discounted or ignored.”

In an interview, Rosen said since his office ceased pursuing the death penalty four years ago, they cannot rationally continue to litigate and defend death sentences prior to that point.

“It flows logically because if you’re saying that for the same crime committed today you would not seek the death penalty, but someone else has been sitting on death row for 20 years, that’s not fair,” he said. “We want to try to treat people who have committed similar crimes similarly.”

Rosen also reiterated the change of heart he says drove him to end death penalty prosecutions by his office.

“I used to think that in a perfect world, in a perfectly fair society, there could be some crimes so horrible and awful that the appropriate response would be death,” he said. “But I’ve come to know what we all know, we don’t live in a perfect world where everything is fair, I just began to feel like we don’t have the moral authority as a society to execute someone.”

He added that converting the death sentences will inevitably free up his office’s resources to focus on local crimes, and offer closure to victims’ families instead of the decades-long limbo they currently experience awaiting some finality in their loved ones’ cases.

“That’s not fair to anybody. We’re trying to bring finality to these cases,” Rosen said. “At this point, it’s unlikely anyone will be executed.”

County Public Defender Molly O’Neal lauded the resentencing motions, calling them another step toward an eventuality in which California dispenses with capital punishment altogether.

“We have executed people who weren’t actually the killer. It’s such an extreme ultimate consequence, and we almost never get it right,” O’Neal said. “I truly believe we will get to a place where we will not use the death penalty. It takes out a revenge system that was never implemented fairly and was always a bad system.”

Bishop Oscar Cantú, of the Diocese of San Jose, said he is “very pleased” with the district attorney’s actions, which he says are in line with Catholic decrees by Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis.

“How we treat the worst of us says something about us as well,” Cantú said in an interview. “Those on death row are poor, almost all of them. Most of them are people of color. How the justice is administered is dubious and troubling. We don’t need capital punishment; we’re better off without it as a society.”

Both in the court filings and in the interview, Rosen noted what he considered fundamental inequities in death penalty sentences, which are determined by separate juries, all of whom must declare under oath their support for capital punishment. That has resulted, the filing argues, in sentencing juries that are predominantly white and lack diversity both culturally and in life experiences.

A recent court case involving a Santa Clara County death row inmate helps illustrate that point. Willie Branner, now 74, was convicted of murder in 1981 after a fatal shooting during a robbery; after more than 30 years of legal appeals, he got his sentence vacated and was granted the right to a retrial by a federal court this past December. The crux of his appellate argument was that the prosecutor who secured his conviction unconstitutionally rejected Black, Asian American and Jewish people from his trial jury.

Bryan Stevenson, a Montgomery, Alabama -based attorney who is credited with helping overturn dozens of death sentences — and whose memoir inspired the film “Just Mercy” — said in a statement that he was “extremely encouraged” by the proposal to remove death sentences originating in Santa Clara County.

“I applaud the courage and the commitment to equality and justice that motivated this decision,” he said. “We can create a safer, healthier and more just society without the death penalty and the history of racial bias and bigotry it carries.”

Rosen’s administration has secured capital punishment once during his 13 years as district attorney, in the case of Melvin Forte , who was sentenced to death in 2011 by a county judge. The judge based the decision on a jury recommendation reached the previous December, after Rosen was elected to his first term but before he was sworn into office. That 2010 jury finding occurred a few days after Rodrigo Paniagua Jr . was sentenced to death by a county judge for murdering his pregnant girlfriend and their two daughters.

Those two cases mark the most recent death sentences issued in Santa Clara County; the oldest is for 74-year-old David Ghent, who was sentenced in 1979, and has since secured his own retrial. Rosen’s office has sought the death penalty four times since then, eventually withdrawing the pursuit in two of the cases.

In the other two instances, a jury in 2020 returned a not guilty verdict in a child homicide, and in perhaps the most high-profile case, a sentencing jury rejected the death penalty and instead recommended a lifetime prison sentence without parole for Antolin Garcia Torres for the 2012 kidnapping and murder of 15-year-old Sierra LaMar near Morgan Hill.

Rosen said he does not expect across-the-board agreement with his resentencing motions. Already, one of the condemned men offered the legal relief, Christopher Spencer, has opted to continuing litigating his case as a capital defendant. The district attorney’s office is sending out letters to members of the victims’ families in all of the death penalty cases they are looking to resentence, and Rosen said he welcomes the chance to meet with him.

At least half of the prisoners who would be affected by the proposed resentencing have signaled an intent to agree, according to the office.

Rosen expressed confidence that his motions will hold up in court, citing state law that empowers district attorneys to recommend resentencing and rules requiring that such motions “may only be overcome if a court finds the defendant currently poses an unreasonable risk of danger to public safety.” His office argues that provision doesn’t apply since none of the resentencings would entail any prison release.

“We took the first step four years ago,” Rosen said. “This is the second and final step.”

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