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Stranded on Death Row

Incarcerated writer Timothy James Young says it’s time for Governor Newsom to live up to his word and abolish the death penalty. 

Timothy James Young
Timothy James Young. (Photo: Instagram)

My name is Timothy James Young. I am a wrongfully convicted prisoner on San Quentin’s death row. There was a time when I had hope. I could sense that the winds of change were stirring about. It seemed like politicians were finally aligning themselves with the will of the people. I was moved. I was caught up in the moment. I predicted that the death penalty was on the verge of extinction. 

I was wrong. It still exists. I now find myself in limbo — stranded on death row. 

Despite promises by California’s elected officials, despite Governor Gavin Newsom’s 2019 call for a moratorium on executions, despite renewed reckonings with racial justice in the wake of the 2020 protests, and even despite California’s proposed plan to close death row and begin transfers of incarcerated people like me out of our current facilities, the fundamental stench of the death penalty remains. The injustice of the death penalty itself — as well as the system that upholds it, and the sarcophagus that it makes of my life — remains woefully intact. 

California is one of eleven states remaining where the death penalty still remains legal, despite not having been used for more than a decade. Oregon, most recently, commuted the sentences of 17 death row prisoners. But the abolition of the death penalty remains a political football. Progressive lawmakers have dragged their feet, while, fundamentally, they have the power to get rid of the practice altogether. 

In 2018, during Newsom’s campaign, he stated that “abolishing the death penalty would be a major priority.” On March 12, 2019, less than 90 days after being inaugurated, Newsom placed a moratorium on the death penalty and ordered that the execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison be dismantled. On June 5, 2020, (in the wake of George Floyd’s death and amid national demonstrations) Newsom conducted a press conference on policing, racism, and structural injustice. In it, he stated that he’d “heard the people’s calls, cries, and demands for change,” and that he would “answer the call.” 

The pleas for change were deafening — and yet, there has been no bill or ballot initiative to put the abolition of the death penalty into law. Three states, including Virginia, have abolished the death penalty since Newsom took office. But here, in the “progressive” state of California, the death penalty, as well as structural injustice, unfortunately remains intact. 

San Quentin State Prison, Building 22, Point San Quentin, San Quentin, Marin County, CA.
San Quentin State Prison, Building 22, Point San Quentin, San Quentin, Marin County, CA. (Credit: Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress. 1933.)

Whether one is morally, ethically, or fiscally opposed to the death penalty, the time to abolish it is now. Not under the guise of 2016’s Proposition 66, which merely gives one the illusion of systemic reform, but rather by moving beyond the smoke and mirrors and making haste to deliver upon the promise of dismantling this sentence of death altogether. 

To do so would mean that wrongfully convicted prisoners would have greater access to the courts, and that an appeal could be exhausted within four years as opposed to four decades. It would also mean that they would have greater access to counsel. They would no longer be forced to remain with the attorney that is hand-picked, paid, and appointed to them by the California Supreme Court — a court that has a vested interest in making sure that sentences are not reversed. Instead, they could break the monopoly the state has over their lives. They would have the right to self-representation, as well as pro bono representation.

We all know that representation matters. It matters prior to arrest, after arrest, and at every stage thereafter. Sadly, I have not fared well. My trial record and my appellate record tell a story of ineffective assistance of counsel. But that can change. It can change in a blink of an eye. It just takes the right attorney or the right law firm. Until then, representation is a missing component of my freedom.

The other component is longevity. Will I live long enough to see a court-generated exoneration? I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that the criminal justice system has squeezed nearly all the life out of me. The wear and tear of doing time has taken its toll. It’s one thing to have to deal with aging, failing health, and substandard medical care while behind bars, but complications with long COVID make me feel as if I am running out of time.

As the clock ticks and the wheels of justice continue to turn slowly, I think about all the things I’ve missed out on. All the things I’ve had to endure. The devastation of being separated from family, friends, and community. The deep, deep pain of not being able to build relationships with my children and my grandchildren. This is what “structural injustice” looks like. This is what it feels like to be stranded on death row.

What is the way forward, when the American court system has never been kind to Black folks? I know that they have blood on their hands… and that they signed off on everything from slavery to Jim Crow and Black codes to mass incarceration. I know that many judges in this country are not elected, but rather, appointed by politicians (a year after my wrongful conviction, the prosecutor in my case was appointed to the bench by former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger). I know that most of them do not promote the interest of justice, but rather, protect the interest of white supremacy. So what gives? How do I get relief?

For me, the way forward is a pardon. And that leads me back to Governor Newsom. He is fresh off a landslide victory and is entering his final term with a full mandate at his disposal. He not only has the power to bring the death penalty to an end, but he also has the power to pardon. He has signaled his intention to bring about justice many times before. The question is, will he? Until talk and campaign promises turn into action, I, Timothy James Young, remain stranded on death row.