California Prosecutor’s Trip to EJI’s Legacy Sites Compels Him to Overturn 14 Death Sentences


EJI’s Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama.

Santa Clara County Dist. Atty. Jeff Rosen, who sought the death penalty in several previous cases, is now working to take 14 people off of California’s death row. He believes that racial bias played a role in each of the cases, citing “an inherent racism in our justice system.” His visit to EJI’s Legacy Sites, he said in an interview published in the Los Angeles Times, is what transformed his view of capital punishment.

EJI’s Legacy Museum, in Montgomery, Alabama, traces 400 years of history from enslavement, to racial terrorism, to codified segregation, to mass incarceration. Nearby, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice honors thousands of people who were killed in racial terror lynchings across the U.S. between 1877 and 1950. The third Legacy Site, Freedom Monument Sculpture Park, uses art and narrative to explore the lives of enslaved people. The park opened earlier this month.

“I went there supporting the death penalty,” Mr. Rosen said of his visit to the sites. “I left not so sure anymore.”

Mr. Rosen said the sites made him question whether there is such a thing as a moral execution, adding that the museum and memorial made clear to him the inextricable connection between racial terror lynchings and modern-day executions.

“I think that if more people went there, they would think a little differently about our country, and hopefully act a little differently also,” he said. “I think that in my lifetime, we will look back and say it was not right to execute people.”

“How can a museum have such an impact?” LA Times columnist Anita Chabria wondered after interviewing Mr. Rosen. She ended up visiting the Legacy Sites herself, later writing that “the museum lays out with astonishing clarity a history that is painful, but necessary to acknowledge.”

California District Attorney Jeff Rosen. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

The 14 men Mr. Rosen is seeking new sentences for are among 645 people condemned to die in California. Roughly one third of the state’s death row is Black, though Black people make up just 6.5% of California’s population.

While California Governor Gavin Newsom ordered for the state’s death row to be dismantled in 2019, capital punishment still exists in law in the state.

Across the country, support for the death penalty has reached a historic low. A 2023 poll revealed that most Americans believed the death penalty was applied unfairly and nearly two thirds of states have either paused executions or abolished the death penalty altogether.

Alabama, which sentences more people to death per capita than any other state and recently put a man to death using an untested, experimental method, remains an outlier.