The 737 inmates sentenced to be executed in California make up more than one-quarter of the nation’s death row population of close to 2,700. The last time the state executed someone was 2006. And if Gov. Gavin Newsom has his way, never again will an inmate be subjected to capital punishment. On Wednesday, by executive order, he imposed a moratorium on executions, granting a reprieve to all those now on death row; shut down the state’s new and unused death chamber at San Quentin State Prison; and suspended the protocol that sets regulations for lethal injections. The move makes California the 24th state without a death penalty in place, including the three others that have gubernatorial moratoriums. In the prefatory rationale given for his order, Newsom states:
Whereas, death sentences are unevenly and unfairly applied to people of color, people with mental disabilities, and people who cannot afford costly legal representation.
Whereas, innocent people have been sentenced to death in California. Moreover, the National Academy of Sciences estimates that as many as one on 25 people sentenced to death in the United States is likely innocent.
Whereas, since 1978, California has spent $5 billion on a death penalty system that has executed 13 people [.
In a press release accompanying the order, Newsom said he would not oversee any executions during his term of office as governor: “Our death penalty system has been, by all measures, a failure. It has discriminated against defendants who are mentally ill, black and brown, or can’t afford expensive legal representation. It has provided no public safety benefit or value as a deterrent. It has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars. Most of all, the death penalty is absolute. It’s irreversible and irreparable in the event of human error.”
At a press conference in Sacramento, where he took note of the NAS estimate saying 4 percent of executed people are innocent, Newsom said: “If that’s the case, that means if we move forward executing 737 people in California, we will have executed roughly 30 people that are innocent. I don’t know about you. I can’t sign my name to that. I can’t be party to that. I won’t be able to sleep at night.”
Because the moratorium and reprieves only last while Newsom is governor, no sentences are being commuted, say, to life without parole. So it’s possible that some or all those inmates whose death sentences are now in abeyance might still one day be executed. Currently, the only way the death penalty can be repealed is with a citizen vote.
Newsom is being criticized by several lawmakers for his executive order in part because California voters in 2016 rejected a ballot initiative to abolish capital punishment by a margin of more than 850,000 votes, 53-47 percent. In 2012, another attempt was also defeated 52-48 percent.
While death penalty opponents have praised the governor’s order, supporters of the ultimate punishment are enraged. These include a number of relatives of victims that inmates reprieved by Newsom were convicted of murdering. The squatter in the White House pinned an early morning tweet to that rage:
Trump has a thing for the death penalty, even when the accused are innocent. That was the case with the Central Park Five, four African American juveniles and one Latino juvenile convicted of assault and rape of a white woman jogger 30 years ago next month. Trump bought ads calling for the death penalty. Fourteen years after their conviction was overturned as a consequence of DNA evidence and the confession of an imprisoned murderer and serial rapist, Trump was still calling for their execution. Ignoring their exoneration, he said in a statement to CNN “They admitted they were guilty. The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous.”
Since the 1970s, 164 death row inmates have been released nationwide because evidence showed they were innocent. Nearly one-fourth of them had confessed, something that police and prosecutors and defense attorneys know is not uncommon. And given that the youths were interrogated without lawyers present after hours of questioning during which they were denied food and water and sleep, confessions were not all that surprising.
Robert Dunham, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, said in a statement that Newsom’s order …
“… has tremendous symbolic value that adds momentum to the national trend away from capital punishment in the U.S. More than one third of the nation’s death-row population is now incarcerated in states in which Governors have said no executions will take place. […]
“Death-penalty moratoria create breathing space in which states can meaningfully reassess what to do with their death-penalty statutes,” Dunham said. “The governor’s announcement formalizes a de facto moratorium that has been in place in California for more than a decade. The key question is what comes next””
What does come next? Given the strong Democratic majority in both houses of the California state legislature, it seems unlikely that lawmakers there would make any move to revoke the executive order. But a voter initiative might be employed to do so, either to try to recall Newsom or wreck his re-election chances in 2022
Meteor Blade, Daily Kos, March 13, 2019
Gov Newsom acts to make CA the fourth state in eight years to place a moratorium on executions