Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen is moving to eliminate the county’s death row, looking to sentence the 15 men still sitting on it to serve life in prison without the chance of parole instead, according press release last week. 

“Judges and juries of the People should decide where an inmate dies,” Rosen said in a Friday press release. “God should decide when.” 

California has the highest death row population in the western hemisphere, holding more than 650 people sentenced to death.

“It’s an antiquated, racially biased, error-prone system that deters nothing and costs us millions of public dollars and our integrity as a community that cherishes justice,” Rosen said.  

Black Californians make up 35.58 percent of California’s death row, but only about 5 percent of the state’s population.  

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

The average age of the 15 men subject to this change is 63. Although most of the county’s death row inmates were sentenced between 1980 and 1997, two men, Rodrigo Paniagua Jr., 47, and Melvin Forte, 73, were sentenced in 2010 and 2011, respectively.  

Some local religious leaders are applauding the change. 

“The question is not whether these 15 human beings deserve the death penalty. It’s whether the two million people of Santa Clara County deserve the indignity and ineffectiveness of the death penalty.”

“This decision is a significant step forward in respecting the sanctity of all human life,” San Jose Catholic Bishop Oscar Cantú said.” It is a call to move away from punitive justice towards restorative justice that heals and rebuilds lives.” 

California Governor Gavin Newsom issued a moratorium on execution in California in March of 2019, and the state is working to move inmates out of San Quentin’s death row and into other facilities.  

“The question is not whether these 15 human beings deserve the death penalty,” Rosen said. “It’s whether the two million people of Santa Clara County deserve the indignity and ineffectiveness of the death penalty.”