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California says it will dismantle death row. The move brings cheers and anger

California's San Quentin prison houses the state's only death row for male inmates. Death row for men and women will soon be dismantled.
Justin Sullivan
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California's San Quentin prison houses the state's only death row for male inmates. Death row for men and women will soon be dismantled.

SAN FRANCISCO — California this week pushed ahead with controversial efforts to dismantle the largest death row system in America.

Under Gov. Gavin Newsom, the state is moving to make the transfer of condemned inmates permanent and mandatory after what the state's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) calls a successful pilot program that voluntarily moved 101 inmates off death row into general population prisons across the state.

The effort is in keeping with Newsom's belief that the death penalty in America is unjust, is racially and class biased and has little connection to justice.

"That's a helluva thing: The prospect of your ending up on death row has more to do with your wealth and race than it does your guilt or innocence," the Democratic governor said last year. "Think about that. We talk about justice, we preach justice. But as a nation, we don't practice it on death row."

After a 45-day public comment period and a public hearing in March, the state hopes to start moving all 671 death row inmates – 650 men and 21 women — into several other prisons across the state with high-security units.

Some prisoners will be able to get jobs or cellmates if they are mainstreamed into the general prison population.

The CDCR says the move allows the state "to phase out the practice of segregating people on death row based solely on their sentence." No inmates will be re-sentenced and no death row commutations offered, officials say.

Technically, the death penalty still exists in California. Prosecutors can still seek it. But no one has been put to death in the state in 17 years. And in 2019, Newsom imposed a moratorium on executions and he closed the death chamber at San Quentin, the decrepit and still heavily used 19th century prison overlooking San Francisco Bay.

Those who get prison jobs — as clerks, laundry or kitchen helpers – will see 70 percent of their pay go to victims' families, as required under Proposition 66. That 2016 voter-passed initiative amended California's Penal Code to require death-sentenced inmates to work and pay restitution.

Anti-capital punishment groups are elated that the state with the largest condemned population is moving forward with efforts to, in effect, join the 23 other states that have abolished their death rows.

"I'm thrilled. Gavin Newsom is doing a very smart thing and a very positive thing," says actor Mike Farrell, a long-time activist on the issue who chairs the group Death Penalty Focus. "It will continue to show people that the death penalty is neither necessary nor is it doing us any good."

Farrell calls capital punishment barbaric and biased against black, brown and poor people. While he wholly supports Newsom's move, he points out that many death row inmates face serious psychological hurdles, which will complicate the process of mainstreaming death row inmates.

"It's going to be very difficult. There are many people on death row with serious mental issues," he told NPR, noting many have been isolated for decades. "I think it's a very good move on (Newsom's) part. I just think that it has to be done extraordinarily carefully and very, very humanely."

Some murder victim families are opposed

But death penalty proponents and victims' rights advocates are frustrated and angry.

"To hear this news is devastating," says Sandra Friend. She described feeling victimized all over again.

Her 8-year-old son Michael Lyons was making his way home from school in Yuba City, Calif., in 1996 when he was abducted and sodomized by serial killer Robert Boyd Rhoades, who dumped the child's body in a riverbed.

"He (Rhoades) tortured Michael for 10 hours. He stabbed him 70 to 80 times," she says. "And he was 8 years old. Just the little boy full of life, full of dreams."

Rhoades was convicted of Lyons' murder in 1998 and later sentenced to die by lethal injection. But that never happened.

In part, California's death penalty reforms grew out of 2016's Prop. 66, which promised to speed up the time between a death sentence and an execution. The successful ballot measure also required condemned prisoners to work and pay restitution.

Now death penalty proponents accuse Newsom of exploiting a lesser-known section of Prop. 66 for his own ideological and political purposes.

"The governor has taken loopholes and nuances in the law and used them to give criminals – the worst criminals — a break," says Michael Rushford, president of the conservative Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. "To start mainstreaming people like Tiequon Cox, who killed an entire family in Los Angeles after going to the wrong address to do a gang hit, is an abandonment of justice. Injecting politics into criminal justice and public safety is insane. It's unjust, unfair and it's stupid."

Other states have taken similar measures

In recent years governors in Pennsylvania and Oregon also have imposed moratoriums on the death penalty.

Oregon's Kate Brown extended her predecessor's moratorium. And in one of her last acts as governor last month, Brown commuted the sentences of all 17 people on death row to life in prison with no possibility of parole. She also ordered corrections officials to begin dismantling the state's execution chamber.

"I believe that there are many Oregonians that share my values that it is inequitable, immoral and doesn't make sense for the state to take a life, particularly when it is irreversible," she said, after announcing her decision shortly before the Christmas break.

Nationally, five-year averages of executions and new death sentences in America have hit decade lows, according to the recently published annual report by the non-partisan and non-profit Death Penalty Information Center.

Gallup polling shows a majority 55 percent of Americans are in favor of the death penalty for convicted murderers. But that's in stark contrast to the consistent 60 percent to 80 percent support recorded between 1976 and 2016, Gallup data show.

In California, Sandra Friend says it's outrageous that killers like Rhoades may "get rewarded," as she puts it, with expanded work options, even a cellmate.

"For him to be able to leave death row and go into a cushier prison, having maybe possibly a cellie, having a job, is terrifying because he is the worst of the worst. He is a monster," she says.

State officials underscore that inmate transfers and their housing will depend on the specific facts of each inmate.

"Their housing would depend on their individual case factors, and it's what the multidisciplinary teams will be evaluating," says CDCR spokeswoman Vicky Waters.

But Friend and other victims' families worry that simply allowing death row inmates to mingle with prisoners who will eventually get out is dangerous.

"Just to think about him (Rhoades) interacting with other inmates and having the opportunity to teach those skills and those methods of keeping, you know, under the radar is terrifying," Friend says. "He is a great threat to our society, our children."

The state hopes to permanently empty California's death row by this fall, a CDCR official says.

Friend vows to fight the effort. A public hearing on the issue is scheduled in Sacramento for March 8.

"I'm definitely going to make Michael's voice heard," she says, "because he's the one that is getting lost in all of this."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.