California must take the final step by abolishing the death penalty

By Kirk Bloodsworth, Special to CalMatters

I do not believe in coincidence. Too many of the events along my journey from death row to exoneration were filled with deeper meaning. 

In 1985, I was a 24-year-old honorably discharged Marine who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to die in Maryland for a crime I did not commit. Then in 1989, I got “The Blooding” by Jospeh Wambaugh from the prison library. It was a book about a new forensic breakthrough called DNA fingerprinting. 

I later became the first person exonerated from a death sentence through the use of DNA evidence. In a bizarre twist of fate, I discovered that the true perpetrator of the crime had lived in a cell right below mine for years.

Today is World Day Against the Death Penalty. It is also California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s birthday. I believe it is very auspicious that these two events share a day. 

It seems fitting for a man who has used his authority as governor to take the bold stand that “the intentional killing of another person is wrong,” and declare that as governor, he “will not oversee the execution of any individual.”

I am now the executive director of Witness to Innocence, an organization led by exonerated survivors of death row with similar stories to my own. 

There are at least 166 of us, men and women who have been exonerated from death row in the U.S. since 1973. We are celebrating the 17th World Day Against the Death Penalty by wishing Gov. Newsom a very happy birthday.

We thank him for remembering our stories when he said “we’ve created a system that allows for innocent people to be put to death.” We don’t think that. We know that.”

We, the survivors of death row, also know that the problems with the death penalty go far beyond the very real risk that we will execute an innocent person.

As Gov. Newsom said: “It’s a racist system. You cannot deny that. It’s a system that is perpetuating inequality. It’s a system that I cannot in good conscience support.”

California’s death row, the largest in the nation by far, is emblematic of those problems. The majority of people sentenced to death in California are people of color. 

Many suffer from severe mental illness, intellectual disabilities, brain injury, or long histories of abuse and trauma, and nearly a quarter were age 21 or younger at the time of their alleged crimes.

Whether a person will be sentenced to death depends more on which county he or she is from and who their attorney was than on the facts of the case. California spends $150 million a year on this problematic system, which is a vivid illustration of the deep flaws that remain in our criminal justice system.

Gov. Newsom’s moratorium on executions is a great first step, and the journey toward justice must continue. I hope next year on his birthday and World Day Against the Death Penalty we have more to thank the governor for, and I look forward to the day when we count California among the jurisdictions in the U.S  and the vast majority of countries that have come to recognize that death can never advance justice.


Kirk Bloodsworth is the executive director of Witness to Innocence, a national organization of death row exonerees in Philadelphia with a mission to abolish the death penalty, [email protected]. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters

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