On April 5, 2024, Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen filed petitions asking the county superior court to resentence 15 death-sentenced men from his county to sentences of life in prison without the possibility for parole. These petitions were filed four years after DA Rosen announced his office would no longer seek the death penalty, a decision partly in response to nationwide calls for criminal legal reform following the murder of George Floyd. At the time, DA Rosen said that Mr. Floyd’s death had “changed our country and our community… It has changed my office. It has changed me.” DA Rosen also noted that his views about the death penalty were affected by visits to the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, which traces the history of slavery through mass incarceration of people of color. “I went there supporting the death penalty,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I left not so sure anymore.”

In filings submitted to the Santa Clara Superior Court, DA Rosen cited the “diminishing likelihood” of any executions because of Governor Gavin Newsom’s execution moratorium as well as the “irreversible” nature of capital punishment and inability to guarantee due process to all defendants. “The state is dismantling death row, and it is time we recognize this reality and dismantle these sentences as well,” stated DA Rosen in one of the resentencing motions. Acknowledging that the defendants are not the only people impacted by his decision, DA Rosen noted in all petitions that “the enduring and indescribable pain” felt by crime victims’ families and friends “cannot be discounted or ignored.”

As a prosecutor, DA Rosen previously supported capital punishment and sought the death penalty at trial on several occasions but stopped doing so because of what he said was a lack of fairness in the criminal legal system. “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 to execute someone.” If the court grants the motions, DA Rosen said his office will have greater resources to focus on local crime and offer closure to victims’ families who have waited for decades to see finality in their family-member’s case.

Death penalty critics have commended DA Rosen’s efforts, with Professor Elisabeth Semel, director of the Death Penalty Clinic at UC Berkeley, calling his actions “highly significant.” Approximately 35% of people on California’s death row are Black, despite Black people accounting for just about 5% of all Californian residents. About 26% of death row inmates are Hispanic or Mexican, and nearly 70% of California’s death row population are people of color. Research shows that not only is the race of the defendant important in sentencing, but also that the race of the victim and attitudes of the prosecutor affect decisions to seek a death sentence. People accused of killing a white person are more likely to be tried capitally than those being tried for the murder of a person of color. “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,” Professor Semel said. Bishop Oscar Cantú of the Diocese of San Jose is also “very pleased” with DA Rosen’s decision. “How we treat the worst of us says something about us as well,” said Bishop Cantú. “Those on death row are poor, almost all of them. Most of them are people of color. How justice is administered is dubious and troubling. We don’t need capital punishment; we’re better off without it as a society.

During his 13 years as District Attorney of Santa Clara County, Mr. Rosen secured just one death sentence. In 2011, a county judge sentenced Melvin Forte to death based on a 2010 jury recommendation for death. Rodrigo Paniagua Jr. was sentenced to death by a jury days before the jury in Mr. Forte’s case recommended death. Since 2011, DA Rosen’s office sought the death penalty four times, with only two of those cases resulting in capital trials. He is confident that the resentencing motions will be legally considered, as California law allows district attorneys to recommend sentencing changes if the defendant is not an “unreasonable risk of danger” to society. DA Rosen’s office believes that all defendants will fall under this rule, as resentencing would not entail release from prison. “We took the first step four years ago…This is the second and final step,” DA Rosen said.