Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen

Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen talks about a case in San José, California, on October 20, 2021.

(Photo: Nhat V. Meyer/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images)

'Every DA... Should Follow Suit': Prosecutor Seeks to Commute County Death Sentences

District Attorney Jeff Rosen "is taking an important step to confront racism in the criminal legal system," said Smart Justice California.

In a potential model for other U.S. officials, Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen, "once a prosecutor who believed in capital punishment and one who rejects association with the progressive prosecutor movement, has been quietly preparing to ask courts to change the penalties of 14 men from his county who are waiting for that ultimate sentence to be carried out."

That's according toLos Angeles Times columnist Anita Chabria, who exclusively reported on the California prosecutor's efforts, inspired by learning about how the death penalty connects to the country's long history of killing and oppressing people of color.

As Chabria wrote:

In most cases, he wants the court to re-sentence these men (Santa Clara has no women on death row) to serve life without parole. But in a few separate cases, already completed last year, he has requested that they be given the chance of freedom.

Why? An inherent racism in our justice system handed down from slavery to mass incarceration and capital punishment, he cites as a main reason.

"[W]e are not confident that these sentences were attained without racial bias," his office wrote in a motion to courts expected to be filed in coming days in multiple cases. "We cannot defend these sentences, and we believe that implicit bias and structural racism played some role in the death sentence."

"Rosen's unprecedented move (he is the only prosecutor in California to have made such a blanket request, and the only one I could find nationwide) has gone largely unnoticed. But it represents a new battleground in the fight over the death penalty," she asserted. "While many prosecutors around the state and the nation have stopped the use of the death penalty moving forward, Rosen is the first to look back and answer the question—with collective action—If it isn’t fair now, how could it have been fair then? "

The Santa Clara County district attorney previously pursued capital punishment in four cases—including one in which the jury ultimately found the man innocent in June 2020. A month later, Rosen announced he would no longer seek death sentences.

In a 2021 piece for The Appealarguing that Rosen should not be California's next attorney general, retired deputy public defender Michael Ogul wrote that "as someone who witnessed Rosen's attempt to execute an innocent man firsthand, his policy change is nothing more than a brazen attempt to selfishly further his political ambitions."

Rosen has said he changed his position on capital punishment after trips to the Legacy Sites, a museum, memorial, and sculpture park in Alabama that "invite visitors to reckon with our history of racial injustice in places where that history was lived." They were created by the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal group that represents clients sentenced to death and condemned to die in prison.

"We cannot ignore that the death penalty's roots stretch back to slavery and the lynchings that continued long after the Emancipation Proclamation," Equal Justice USA CEO Jamila Hodge said in a statement Thursday, welcoming Rosen's new resentencing effort. "As lynchings diminished, executions surged. Every time we end the death penalty or stop executions, we chip away at centuries of racial injustice."

The Ella Baker Center also celebrated the development, saying: "The death penalty is rooted in a legacy of racism—from the execution of enslaved people, to the terror and lynching of Black people, to the criminal legal system of executions we have today. We must end it."

Elisabeth Semel, director of the Death Penalty Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, told the Times columnist that Rosen's "highly significant" move could push other prosecutors to reconsider capital punishment, rather than just reviewing specific cases.

"There is nothing, nothing that these cases have more in common than racial discrimination, whether we are talking about privileging white victims, meaning seeking the death penalty in white crime, or disadvantaging Black clients," Semel said.

In California, over a third of death row inmates are Black and a quarter are Latinx. None of them face imminent executions, thanks to a statewide moratorium imposed in 2019 by Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat reelected in 2022 after a failed recall attempt.

Rosen's initiative notably comes while "California is sliding back toward a tough-on-crime attitude, driven largely by an increase in organized retail [theft] and the fentanyl crisis," as Chabria pointed out Thursday in a separate Times piece about Newsom.

The governor—who "dismantled the death chamber and promised to do away with death row as a segregated (and expensive) cellblock," as Chabria detailed—is barred from running for a third term and considered a potential 2028 presidential candidate.

Democratic President Joe Biden, who is seeking reelection in November, campaigned on ending the death penalty at the federal level, but that lacks the support it would need to pass the divided Congress. He endured intense criticism in January over the U.S. Department of Justice pursuing the death penalty for a mass shooter serving life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The presumptive Republican nominee is former President Donald Trump, whose first term featured a "killing spree" in which the federal government executed 13 death row inmates. During a Tuesday campaign rally, Trump said that if elected, "I will ask Congress to send a bill to my desk ensuring that anyone who murders a police officer will receive immediately the death penalty."

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