Capitol Alert

Not guilty: Five California inmates who were freed from death row

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order suspending capital punishment cites the possibility that an innocent person could be sentenced to death as one reason to close the execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison.

Since 1978, when California voters reinstated the death penalty, at least five men on death row have been exonerated, according to the capital punishment tracker Death Penalty Information Center.

Newsom’s order also argues the death penalty is applied disproportionately to people of color. Three of the exonerated Californians are black; one is Native American and one is Latino, according to databases that compile information on overturned convictions.

Ernest “Shujaa” Graham, convicted in 1976 for the killing of a correctional officer, was acquitted in 1981 by the Supreme Court of California after spending five years on death row, according to Death Penalty Information Center.

The court found that prosecutors “improperly used their peremptory challenges to exclude prospective jurors who were black,” Death Penalty Information Center reported.

He was released from custody after another court found him not guilty.

In 2017, Graham and his partner, anti-death penalty activist Phyllis Prentice, gave an interview to Al-Jazeera, where they discussed finding love while Graham was on death row.

“Capital punishment doesn’t solve a social problem, it doesn’t reduce violence, it’s no deterrent to crime - it’s just retaliation. It doesn’t work. And we have to keep educating people about this,” Green said in the interview.

Troy Lee Jones was convicted in 1982 for the murder of Carolyn Grayson in Merced County. In 1996, the Supreme Court ordered he receive a re-trial because he received an incompetent defense from his attorney. The prosecution later dropped charges and Jones was set free, according to Death Penalty Information Center.

The next man to be exonerated from California’s death row was Oscar Lee Morris in 2000. Morris was sentenced to death in 1983 on charges of robbery and murder in Long Beach. The state’s chief witness, Joe West, on his deathbed in 1997 said he had fabricated his testimony against Morris to gain leniency in his own criminal cases, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

Patrick Croy spent seven years on death row until he was acquitted in 1990 for the murder of a Yreka police officer in 1978. He spent a total of 19 years in prison in connection to other alleged offenses until a federal judge vacated all remaining charges in 2005, Death Penalty Info reports.

The final California death row exoneration took place in 2018.

Vicente Benavides Figueroa, was sentenced to death in 1993 on charges of raping and murdering his girlfriend’s 21-month-old daughter.

Supreme Court Justice Carol A. Corrigan wrote in the court’s opinion that “the evidence (against Figueroa) now shown to be false was extensive, pervasive and impactful,” according to The Los Angeles Times.

Doctors who previously testified that the 21-month-old child’s injuries could have been caused by rape said, after a review of all of the medical records, that the child could not have been sexually assaulted, according to the Bakersfield Californian.

Instead, the newspaper reported, the girl suffered injuries while she was in Figueroa’s care, but it was unclear whether she was harmed intentionally.

“Some doctors said they weren’t provided with all the medical evidence before testifying,” the newspaper reported.

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Andrew Sheeler covers California’s unique political climate for McClatchy. He has covered crime and politics from Interior Alaska to North Dakota’s oil patch to the rugged coast of southern Oregon. He attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks.