The last California governor to grant clemency was Ronald Reagan in 1967 . . . . Before 1976, the year the U.S. Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume after a brief hiatus, clemency was routinely granted. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 204 inmates nationwide were spared between 1960 and 1970.
Excluding the 167 Illinois inmates whose death sentences were commuted in 2003, only 63 lives have been spared since 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Most of those acts of mercy were the result of defendants' mental infirmities, doubts about their guilt, or efforts to build confidence in the death penalty system. Last week Virginia's governor commuted a death sentence because a pair of bloody scissors was improperly destroyed after the trial, depriving the defense of the opportunity to conduct new DNA tests. . . .
The Legislature [in California] reinstated the death penalty in 1977. A year later, 72 percent of California voters adopted an even stiffer capital punishment law. In 1986, the voters removed three state Supreme Court justices for reversing too many death sentences. In 1994, voters adopted the nation's toughest repeat-offender law, the three-strikes-you're out measure that allows life sentences for third offenses as petty as shoplifting.
California's death row is the biggest in the nation, with nearly 650 condemned inmates. Eleven inmates have been executed since 1977. . . .
Clemency has long been intertwined with politics.
Gov. Pat Brown, who in the 1950s and '60s commuted 23 death sentences, more than any California governor, acknowledged that he once let an inmate die in the gas chamber to get a minimum-wage bill through the Legislature.
As most people know, the United States just carried out its 1,000th execution since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. The figures above do not reflect, however, death sentences which have been set aside by the state and federal courts.