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California's death row swells despite nationwide decline in death sentences [Updated]

December 18, 2009 | 11:16 am

California's death row has swollen to 697 inmates, with 29 new death sentences in the state this year, despite a nationwide trend that in 2009 saw the fewest execution verdicts since capital punishment was reinstated in the state in 1976.

Los Angeles County alone sent more people to death row than the entire state of Texas, with 13 capital sentences from the nation's most populous county.

A year-end report released today by the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center counted 106 death sentences handed down nationwide through mid-December, a number that could go up slightly by the end of the month. In 2008, there were 111 such verdicts, and some years in the 1990s had more than 300.

The number of capital sentences in California grew from 20 last year to 29 so far in 2009, despite the state’s lethal injection chamber having been idled by legal challenges for four years and any resumption of executions still at least a year off. [Corrected at 3:30 p.m.: A previous version of this post said the number of death sentences last year in California was 14.]

Executions rose to 52 this year elsewhere in the country, up from 37 last year, a number suppressed by a four-month moratorium in early 2008 while the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the constitutionality of lethal injection.

Death penalty opponents describe California’s capital punishment system as the most cost-inefficient in the country, with just 13 people executed in more than 30 years.

"It really goes against all of the trends we’ve seen across the country, where death sentences are becoming less and less common and are imposed more selectively," said Natasha Minsker, death penalty policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which opposes capital punishment.

Los Angeles County sent as many defendants to death row in 2009 as in the previous three years combined.

L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley cautioned against reading too much into this year’s figures, saying the rise could be a fluke of courtroom scheduling. Capital cases typically take years to wind through the courts before reaching a jury.

--Carol J. Williams and Jack Leonard 

Photo: AP