Governor Gavin Newsom to Halt California’s Death Penalty

(CN) – California Gov. Gavin Newsom will announce Wednesday that 737 inmates on the state’s death row, the largest in the country, will receive a reprieve as he plans to sign an executive order to halt all executions.

“The intentional killing of another person is wrong. And as governor, I will not oversee the execution of any individual,” Newsom said in prepared remarks.

The executive order Newsom plans to sign Wednesday puts a moratorium on executions, withdraws the state’s lethal injection regulations and closes San Quentin State Prison’s new execution chamber.

The state hasn’t executed any prisoners since 2006. Since then, California’s death row population has swelled to make up 25 percent of all condemned inmates in the country.

A number of measures to repeal the death penalty over the years have been defeated by voters, the latest in 2016 when 53 percent voted against a repeal compared to 47 percent who supported it.

“Our death penalty system has been — by any measure — a failure,” Newsom’s prepared remarks say. “It has discriminated against defendants who are mentally ill, black and brown, or can’t afford expensive legal representation.”

California has been mired in legal challenges surrounding its execution protocol, which has prevented any executions from taking place for more than a decade due to a court-ordered moratorium issued in February 2006.

The state’s execution chamber at San Quentin went through a $853,000 upgrade in 2010, but has never been used.

Newsom has publicly opposed the death penalty for several years and campaigned for its repeal in 2016. Although the moratorium will halt executions while he is in office, future governors can decide to reverse the policy.

Proponents of the death penalty were quick to criticize the governor over the executive order, as court challenges are expected to follow.

“The voters of the State of California support the death penalty. That is powerfully demonstrated by their approval of Proposition 66 in 2016 to ensure the death penalty is implemented, and their rejection of measures to end the death penalty in 2016 and 2006, said Michele Hanisee, president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, in a statement Tuesday evening.

But criminal-justice advocates and even a conservative group praised Newsom’s move, calling capital punishment a costly failure that targets primarily people of color.

“Governor Newsom has written a new chapter in the history of justice reform. This is a sweeping move that reflects just how deeply the death penalty has failed,” Equal Justice USA executive director Shari Silberstein said in a statement. “My hope is this will also lead Americans to reconsider our nation’s approach to violence overall. Our overly punitive approach has devastated communities of color, deepened racial disparities and traumatized millions of families.”

The group Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty also applauded Newsom, noting both the injustice and cost of capital punishment.

“As conservatives, we applaud Governor Newsom’s decision because the death penalty violates our beliefs in limited government, fiscal responsibility, and the value of life,” the group’s national manager Hannah Cox said in a statement. “It is rife with errors and racial bias. The number of men and women on death row who suffer from severe mental illness or impairment is shocking. Capital punishment is a failure and big government at its worst, wasting millions of dollars that could be used to solve cold cases and to make communities safer.”

Newsom’s order will also mention the 164 people who were wrongfully convicted and placed on death row.

The order does not grant any condemned inmates early releases or alters any convictions. In California, the governor needs state Supreme Court approval in order to pardon anyone convicted of a felony twice.

Since the state reinstated the death penalty in 1978, 79 condemned have died of natural causes and 26 committed suicide. Newsom said California has spent $5 billion on its death row since 1978.

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