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California

Inmate cited in death penalty debate dies in California

Death row inmate Thomas Potts
Thomas Potts had been sentenced to death in 1998 for the murders of Fred and Shirley Jenks in their home.
(California Department of Corrections)

A double murderer whose case became part of California’s renewed debate over capital punishment died Wednesday in a hospital long before his death sentence could be carried out.

An autopsy will determine what killed Thomas Potts, 71, but officials said foul play was not suspected.

Potts had been sentenced to death by a Kings County jury in 1998 for the murders of Fred and Shirley Jenks in their home. Both victims were in their 70s.

The California Supreme Court unanimously upheld the sentence in March. Two of the justices used the case to criticize the death penalty system in the nation’s most populous state as dysfunctional and expensive.

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It was the first time the high court had considered the death penalty after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a moratorium on executions as long as he is in office.

Justice Goodwin Liu wrote that long-standing problems with the death penalty had not been repaired with Proposition 66, a 2016 ballot measure intended to speed executions.

“The promise of justice in our death penalty system is a promise that California has been unable to keep,” Liu wrote in an opinion joined by Justice Mariano Florentino-Cuellar. Former Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown appointed both justices.

Liu said he was not expressing any view on the morality or constitutionality of the death penalty and would uphold capital sentences when required by law.

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California has not executed anyone since 2006. Since California reinstated capital punishment in 1978, 82 condemned inmates have died from natural causes and 27 by suicide.

There are 728 people on California’s death row.


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