Newsom Halts Death Penalty, Orders California Death Row Shuttered

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – California will close up shop on its death chamber and postpone all executions under an executive order signed Wednesday by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed an executive order ending the death penalty in the Golden State. (Nick Cahill / CNS)

The governor, a Democrat and long-time vocal critic of the death penalty, granted reprieves for each of the 737 inmates condemned to California’s death row until at least when his first term ends in 2023. The moratorium also calls on the state to freeze its search for a lethal injection method that would hold up in federal court.  

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

Newsom, 51, announced his executive order in front of a crowd of reporters and lawmakers at the state Capitol, calling for the end of a policy he says discriminates against minority, disabled and poor inmates who can’t afford lawyers. He believes there are innocent people on California’s death row and recently came to the conclusion that he couldn’t sign off on capital punishment if the time came.

“This doesn’t necessarily square with what I think the values of the representative folks behind me and the representative hearts and minds of tens of millions of Californians: I think we’re better than that,” Newsom said of California having the nation’s largest death row.

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.

Many of the questions reporters asked Newsom on Wednesday involved whether he might be subverting the will of California voters who have routinely upheld the death penalty. Several 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.

The former mayor of San Francisco said voters this past November put their faith in him and that his stance on the death penalty has been widely known for decades. He added the state Constitution affords him the right to grant reprieves and a moratorium.

Critics of the move, including Republican state Sen. Patricia Bates, disagree.

“I’m disappointed that today’s action undermines the will of California’s voters who spoke clearly in 2016 to reaffirm the death penalty,” Bates said after Newsom’s announcement. “Handing out unearned reprieves will only add to the pain felt by many of the victims’ relatives.”

California has been mired in legal challenges surrounding its execution protocol. A court-ordered moratorium has barred any executions from taking place since it was issued in February 2006.

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

U.S. Senator and 2020 presidential candidate Kamala Harris, whom Newsom has endorsed, said it’s time for the Golden State to “turn the page on this chapter and end a deeply flawed system of capital punishment.”

“Black and Latino defendants are far more likely to be executed than their white counterparts. Poor defendants without a team of lawyers are far more likely to enter death row than those with strong representation. Your race or your bank account shouldn’t determine your sentence,” Harris, California’s junior senator, said in a statement.

Proponents of the death penalty blasted the governor over the executive order and predicted court challenges.

“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.”

As a gubernatorial candidate, Newsom acknowledged he supported curtailing the death penalty but wouldn’t go as far as say he would use executive action to do it. During an April 2018 interview with CALmatters, the then-lieutenant governor said he wanted to give voters a “chance to reconsider” after they defeated a proposal to end the death penalty and instead narrowly approved one intended to speed up executions. 

Yet with Wednesday’s order, Newsom joins governors from states like Illinois, Pennsylvania and Oregon that have enacted moratoriums. Newsom, the son of a judge, called the death penalty a financial burden that is “irreversible and irreparable in the event of human error.”

The state has spent more than $5 billion to maintain death row since the death penalty was reinstated by voters in 1978, and has executed just 13 inmates – an average cost of more than $384 million per execution.

Drawing from the media attention sparked by Newsom’s announcement, Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-Greenbrae, introduced a bill Wednesday that would give voters another chance to change the state Constitution and ban the death penalty in November 2020. The constitutional amendment would require two-thirds vote in the Legislature and Newsom’s signature to make it to the ballot, and then voter approval.

If Levine’s bill is passed, California would become the 20th state to abolish the death penalty.

Newsom’s order does not grant any condemned inmates early releases or alters any convictions.

Before making the “emotional decision, Newsom said he visited with a dozen or so victims this week and that his “heart goes out” to them.

“To those victims, all I can say is that as a father of four, I can’t even conceive of their pain, I can’t even conceive of their suffering,” Newsom said. 

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