PolitiFact California: It's Still True: California Has ‘Largest Death Row In The Western Hemisphere’

Mar 14, 2019

Moments after signing an executive order suspending California’s death penalty, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state’s massive death row doesn’t square with its more recent efforts to reform the criminal justice system.

"The pendulum’s swinging in a new direction," Newsom said at a news conference at the Capitol on Wednesday, adding that the state is moving away from its tough-on-crime and "mass over-incarceration" approach of the 1980s and 1990s.

The governor then added a familiar claim about the size of California’s death row.

"All the while we had this sore thumb that stood out in California. That is we were laying claim to having the largest death row in the Western Hemisphere. The largest death row in the United States of America -- two times the size of the next largest state: Florida."

In 2016, we fact-checked a similar claim by the Yes on 62 campaign to abolish the death penalty in California. We rated it True.

In this fact check, we’ll examine the current numbers and explain whether this statement, repeated by Newsom, remains accurate.

Our research

Notably, Newsom’s action doesn’t eliminate California’s death row nor does it change the sentence for any inmates. Instead, it puts on hold any executions while Newsom’s in office. A future governor could reinstate capital punishment.

Governors in other states, Colorado, Oregon and Pennsylvania, have already imposed suspensions on executions. Washington state had been under a similar moratorium, and last year its Supreme Court struck down the death penalty there as"arbitrary and racially biased," according to The Washington Post.

In 2016, California voters rejected Proposition 62, a measure to eliminate the death penalty, with 46.9 percent voting to end executions and 53 percent voting to keep it. Voters narrowly approved Proposition 66, a separate measure to speed up executions.

Two months before that election, a poll found 48 percent of likely voters supported repealing the death penalty, while 37 percent were opposed and 15 percent undecided.

As we reported three years ago, the size of California’s death row is striking.

The largest death row populations in the Western Hemisphere belong to states within the United States, not separate countries, Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told us at the time. The Washington D.C.-based nonprofit is considered an authority on death penalty topics, and opposes capital punishment.

California’s death row is smaller than the total number of people with death sentences of the U.S. total.

But experts say death rows in the U.S. are ranked individually by state, not as a national whole, making California’s stand far out from the rest. We used a similar interpretation of the claim as we examined its accuracy.

In a phone interview today, Dunham confirmed there’s been no significant shift in the rankings, and that California still has the largest total in the Western Hemisphere, followed by Florida and Texas. That confirms the first part of Newsom’s claim.

737 inmates on death row

California’s total death row population was 737 as of March 12, 2019, according to a tally by the California Department of Corrections. That’s down slightly from 746 three years ago. The state hasn’t executed anyone in more than a decade due to legal challenges, but the population has declined due to suicide and natural deaths.

By comparison, Florida has executed more than 30 people over the past decade and Texas has put to death more than 100 inmates over that period.  

Despite the small drop in California's death row total, it remains more than twice Florida’s 343 death row inmates, according to current figures from that state’s corrections agency. That verifies the second portion of Newsom’s statement.

No comparison in Western Hemisphere

Here’s what Dunham told us about comparisons to other countries in the hemisphere.

"Most of the Western Hemisphere has abolished the death penalty. Apart from the United States, the retentionist countries are Cuba, Guatemala and Guyana and then a couple of countries in the Caribbean. None of them have death rows that are remotely the size of California’s or even Florida’s," Dunham told us in 2016.

Canada did away with the death penalty in 1976; Mexico eliminated it in 2005.

Dunham confirmed there’s been no significant change among these countries.

Our ruling

Gov. Gavin Newsom repeated the claim that California’s death row "is the largest in the Western Hemisphere. The largest death row in the United States of America -- two times the size of the next largest state: Florida."

We rated a similar claim True in 2016.

At the time, we noted most countries in the Western Hemisphere have abolished the death penalty and that several U.S. states have far higher death row totals than the few remaining countries that still use capital punishment.

Experts say death rows in the U.S. are ranked individually, and that the rankings have not shifted in recent years.

California’s 737 death row inmates stands out considerably from other states, as well as countries in the Western Hemisphere.

Newsom repeated what remains both an accurate and somber statement.

We rate his claim True.

TRUE – The statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.

Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.

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