Politics & Government

California’s death row turning into home for seniors

Video: Convicted killer Richard Hirschfield speaks from Death Row about 1980 murders

On Dec. 20, 1980, Richard Hirschfield murdered UC Davis sweethearts John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves. A Sacramento Superior Court jury convicted Hirschfield of the crime, and in early 2013, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael W. Sweet senten
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On Dec. 20, 1980, Richard Hirschfield murdered UC Davis sweethearts John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves. A Sacramento Superior Court jury convicted Hirschfield of the crime, and in early 2013, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael W. Sweet senten

California’s death row houses more senior citizens than most of the state’s nursing homes.

Ninety California death-row inmates are at least 65 years old, corrections records show. The number of seniors on death row has grown by nearly 500 percent since early 2006, when the state housed 16 seniors.

California has not executed a prisoner since 2006, largely due to legal challenges to its lethal injection protocol. California voters approved Proposition 66 in November, demanding that the state speed up the death penalty process. The implementation of Proposition 66 is on hold as the Supreme Court rules on its constitutionality.

If California starts executing prisoners again, there is a strong chance that it will kill several elderly inmates. Condemned inmates over 65 committed their crimes an average of 31 years ago; a large number of their sentences have been upheld by the California Supreme Court.

Executing the elderly rarely happens in the United States. Just 19 of the 1,448 U.S. executions that have taken place during the last 40 years have involved a killer over the age of 65, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

California currently has – by a wide margin – the highest number of seniors on death row. About 12 percent of the state’s 749 condemned inmates are at least 65. In the four other states with the largest death rows – Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania and Alabama – about 7 percent of condemned inmates are at least 65.

The oldest person executed in the modern era was John Nixon, who was 77 when Mississippi killed him in 2005. Five condemned inmates in California are older than Nixon.

Data Tracker is a regular feature that breaks down the numbers behind today’s news. Explore more trends at sacbee.com/datatracker.

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