COVID prison deaths exceed recent state-imposed executions in the United States
Gov. Gavin Newsom suspended California’s death penalty in 2019 by executive order. Other states had abolished capital punishment by the end of 2020, said the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) Year End Report, The Death Penalty in 2020.
California passed several reforms last year to address racial disparities in death penalty cases. The California Racial Justice Act “allows prisoners to use statistical evidence of racial bias to challenge their sentences.”
Newsom became the first sitting California governor to file a “friend-of-the-court” brief related to the “unfair and uneven application of the death penalty.” The brief argued that all Americans, no matter their race or ethnicity, deserve the same rights.
According to DPIC “new death sentences and executions reached historic lows in 2020.”
“Though the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on both sentences and executions, the U.S. was poised for its sixth consecutive year with 50 or fewer new death sentences and 30 or fewer executions even before the pandemic shut down court proceedings nationwide,” said the report.
Data gathered by The Marshall Project and Associated Press documents that 1,571 prisoners nationwide died of COVID-19 as of Dec. 10, 2020, exceeding the total number of executions performed in the modern era of the death penalty (1,529). The report also noted: 1) Deaths from COVID-19 among death row inmates rivaled the number of executions this year, with at least 16 confirmed cases of Death Row prisoners who died from COVID and 2) Thirteen death row prisoners died from COVID-19 in California, matching the number executed since the state reinstated the death penalty in 1978.
DPIC reported that 2020 executions displayed “systemic problems” with the application of the death penalty. These included racial bias, disregarding victims’ family wishes, and inadequate appellate review.
A 2020 Gallup poll on attitudes toward capital punishment found that 55% of Americans support the death penalty. That is tied with 2017 for the lowest support in 48 years. The 43% who oppose the death penalty is the highest recorded since 1966.
Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen announced in July that his office would no longer seek the death penalty. Rosen credited a transformative visit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, and the nationwide movement for racial justice sparked by the murder of George Floyd. “It has changed our country and our community,” Rosen said. “It has changed my office. It has changed me.”