Does California Have The Death Penalty?

Last Updated on May 21, 2022 by Fair Punishment Team

America has a lot of contentious issues that divide people of different political beliefs, backgrounds, and moral alignments. Perhaps the most contentious of these is the issue of the death penalty.

Having been a way of executing justice in eras since time immemorial, it has been a part of American life since the puritans first set foot on America, continued through the independence of the 13 colonies, through the civil war, was synonymous with the old west, and right up until the modern age.

In those days when control was less centralized and the rule of law needed a form of spectacle to be enforced, capital punishment was a useful tool to maintain order and control. However, with the rise of a central government, professional police forces, forensic evidence, and properly administered prisons, the use of the death penalty has slowly fallen out of favor, as such posing the question of whether it is still necessary in the modern world.

The Death Penalty in California

Nowhere is discussion of this issue more pronounced than in the most economically powerful and populous state in the union: California. The golden state, along with Texas, has always been quite independent and has a long and varied history in most areas, including the death penalty.

However, with the modern political climate and with the socio-economic problems currently facing America, how does California feel about this issue and does it still have the death penalty.

California’s Long History with the Death Penalty

California has had many different inhabitants and territorial changes through the years. With Native Americans being the first, before coming under Spanish rule in 1769.

It was during this time that the first known death sentence was recorded. In 1778, four chiefs of Kumeyaay from a mission in San Diego were convicted for the conspiracy of killing Christians and were sentenced to death by firing squad. Due to the vague nature of the account however, there is some doubt whether the executions took place.

In 1821, California was seeded to Mexico by Spain after its successful war of Independence, only to be lost in 1847 during the Mexican-American war to the United States.

Once California was a part of the Union, death by firing squad was phased out for death by hanging and this was taken to a statewide level in 1889, when the law was changed to make it so hangings could only occur in one of two prisons – Folsom or San Quentin. In 1937, the gas chamber became the sole method of execution in California until 1967.

California’s attitude towards the death penalty changed began to change in 1972, when the supreme court of California during the ‘People vs Anderson’ case decided that the death penalty was unconstitutional and commuted all death sentences to life in prison in the state.

Although this decision only lasted a few months until it was overturned in ‘Proposition 17’, the effect was lasting. After this the death penalty was repealed and reinstated multiple times, as public and legislative opinion swayed back and forth, executions were suspended only for the suspension to be overturned later.

This has been due to questions regarding the constitutional nature of the death penalty, the interpretations of California’s laws and precedents by its judicial service, the opinions of its governors, and the will of its people. These different factors have made capital punishment and judicial review in California a hot button issue.

Does California Have the Death Penalty?

Technically, yes, capital punishment can be a sentence given in California. In fact, California’s death row population, as of September 2021, sits at 697 inmates, the largest death row population in the United States. Yet, will these sentences be carried out is an entirely different question and completely up for debate.

Currently, there will be no executions and there probably won’t be until at the very least 2023. The reason is that the current Californian governor, Gavin Newsom, has halted them by an official moratorium – a temporary prohibition of an activity – and has been outspoken about the death penalty, citing ‘troubling racial disparities’ behind many convictions.

Since Newsom’s current term will end in 2023, this would be the closest time at which capital punishment may resume. This is not a new occurrence in California, as the last person executed in the state, Clarence Ray Allen, was in January 2006 when the governor was Arnold Schwarzenegger.

There have been many attempts to carry out sentences, but the conflicting factors stated before, along with other reasons, have stayed the execution’s hand. One of these is the contention arising around the three-drug lethal injection, which, if administered incorrectly, can cause enormous amounts of pain and therefore possibly constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, which is illegal under the eighth amendment.

Even victim’s families have weighed in for and against capital punishment. Those against often cite the argument of retribution being quite morally reprehensible and the high economic and administrative cost of capital punishment, siphoning off resources that could be used elsewhere.
Those for often state that the likelihood of admission of guilt by the defendant to avoid the death penalty before trial, offsets a trial’s cost.

It is unclear whether death penalty sentences will be carried out in the future, but most Californians, including The California Commission of Fair Administration of Justice, feel that they won’t be. The Commission that the process was ‘plagued with excessive delay’ and only in exceptionally rare cases would an inmate on death row actually die due to their sentence being administered.

With the public, judicial, and administrative opinion steering away from capital punishment in California, the answer to whether California has the death penalty is a ‘yes’ but truthfully it is a ‘yes for now’.

Notable Acquittals

Due to the nature of the death penalty, there can not be compensation or any apologies if, after the fact, the sentence given is discovered to be wrong.

Therefore, multiple appeals, strict due process, and certainty is necessary if it is introduced as a possible punishment for offenders. However, no matter the diligence or competency of the people involved, there is always going to be someone wrongly convicted.

California’s justice system is no different and has had a few cases in the past that turned into notable acquittals.

In 1961, Paul Imbler was sentenced for murder. The wife of the victim – a store owner – picked Imbler out of a collection of police photographs, and Alfred Costello claimed to have chased Imbler after the attack.

However, it was discovered later that Costello had produced unreliable testimony, police had manufactured evidence, and the fingerprint examiner had given false testimony, leading to Imbler’s exoneration in 1971.


California has a long and complicated history with the death penalty, that mirrors the United States own discussions about its necessity and purpose. As the most populous state in America, it has the broadest variety of views, one of the biggest cultural melting pots, and one of the most intense clashes of ideology that exists in the Union.

Baring this in mind, it’s no wonder that Californians struggle to define where they stand on many contentious issues, including those of race, economics, and especially regarding the death penalty. However, one thing that is becoming clearer and more defined is the state’s review of this sentence and the likelihood of its formal end in the future.