The 737 inmates on California’s largest-in-the-nation death row are getting a reprieve from Governor Gavin Newsom, who plans to sign an executive order Wednesday placing a moratorium on executions.
Newsom also is withdrawing the lethal injection regulations that death penalty opponents already have tied up in courts and shuttering the new execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison that has never been used.
“The intentional killing of another person is wrong and as governor, I will not oversee the execution of any individual,” he said in prepared remarks.
Newsom called the death penalty “a failure” that “has discriminated against defendants who are mentally ill, black and brown, or can’t afford expensive legal representation.” He also said innocent people have been wrongly convicted and sometimes put to death.
In addition to granting reprieve to the state’s 737 death row inmates, the order also repeals the state’s lethal-injection protocol and will close the infamous execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison.
The reasoning Newsom offered for his decision is especially compelling. “The intentional killing of another person is wrong and as Governor, I will not oversee the execution of any individual,” he said in a press release issued by his office. “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.”
Three other states—Oregon, Colorado and Pennsylvania—have governor-imposed moratoria on the death penalty, but none is as far-reaching or significant as Newsom’s decree. California has far and away the largest death row in the country. Florida, with 343 condemned inmates, sits in a distant second place. As of July 1, 2018, there were 2,738 inmates on death row nationally.
Beyond its sheer mathematical impact, Newsom’s order directly calls into question the penological underpinnings of capital punishment.
Under the rules of “guided discretion”—the name given to the version of capital punishment that the Supreme Court’s 1976 decision in Gregg v. Georgia found constitutional—juries in capital cases are given the task of balancing and weighing statutory aggravating and mitigating factors relating to the charged offense, as well as the defendant’s background and character, to determine which defendants convicted of murder should be sent to prison and which should be condemned to die. The system is designed to be rational and fair and to minimize the impact of emotion and bias in sentencing.
But the system has failed, notwithstanding subsequent efforts made by state legislatures across the country, as well as by Congress when it reinstated the federal death penalty in 1988, and by later court decisions aimed at achieving further refinements. The death penalty remains, essentially, what it has always been—a capricious, primitive, state-sanctioned practice marred by racial and class disparities, fueled by rage and grief rather than reason, stoked by political animus, and with no more deterrent effect than long-term imprisonment.
Black and brown defendants continue to be sentenced to death in disproportionately greater numbers than white offenders. The death penalty is also disproportionately meted out in cases involving white victims. Worst of all, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., at least 15 likely-innocent men have been executed in the U.S. since 1989.
To be clear, Newsom’s order has its limitations. It does not overturn any convictions, and it will not result in the release of anyone from prison. The reprieves it grants are temporary and will last only as long as Newsom remains in office.
As expected, Newsom’s order is generating severe blowback from hardcore proponents of the death penalty and fearmongering politicians, foremost among them President Donald Trump. Trump, who took out a full-page ad in four New York City papers in 1989 to call for the execution of five minority teenagers falsely accused of raping a white jogger in Central Park, sent out a tweet at 4:39 a.m. Wednesday condemning Newsom. The president wants to expand the death penalty.
Defying voters, the Governor of California will halt all death penalty executions of 737 stone cold killers. Friends and families of the always forgotten VICTIMS are not thrilled, and neither am I!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 13, 2019
The battle against capital punishment is far from over. It has, however, taken what may well prove to be a decisive turn with Newsom’s order, this time in the direction of our better angels.
California hasn’t executed anyone since 2006, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor. Voters in 2016 narrowly approved a ballot measure to speed up the punishment; however, no condemned inmate faced imminent execution.
Although California has spent about $5 billion administering the death penalty, it has executed only 13 prisoners since 1978. This means taxpayers have spent about $384 million per execution.
Since California’s last execution, its death row population has grown to house one of every four condemned inmates in the United States. They include Scott Peterson, whose trial for killing his pregnant wife Laci riveted the country, and Richard Davis, who kidnapped 12-year-old Polly Klaas during a slumber party and strangled her to death.
Newsom’s policy change come as support for the death penalty has declined over the decades. According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted last year, 54 percent of Americans are in favor of capital punishment for murder while 39 percent are opposed — down significantly from 1996, when 78 percent supported it.
In 2016, California voters narrowly rejected Proposition 62, which would have turned all death sentences into life without the possibility of parole.
Newsom has long been vocal about his opposition to the death penalty, tweeting on Election Day in 2016 that “the death penalty is a failed policy that wastes money & is fundamentally immoral”:
— Gavin Newsom (@GavinNewsom) November 7, 2016
The number of death row executions in the U.S. peaked in 1998 at 98, according to the Pew study. Since then it has fallen greatly, with 23 inmates executed in 2017. Eight states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Ohio, Texas and Virginia — accounted for all executions in 2017, compared with 20 states in 1999.
Newsom’s moratorium affects prisoners on death row, but there’s evidence the pipeline is shrinking since the state’s death penalty cases are declining, according to a report by Safe California, a site focusing on death penalty initiatives. In a 2018 survey of cases by county, Los Angeles reported two death sentences (down from 14 in 2017), Orange County one death sentence (down from six) and Kern County had zero (down from four).
A growing number of Democratic leaders, including presidential candidates Sen. Kamala Harris of California and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, support abolishing the death penalty, while President Donald Trump has said he supports capital punishment for drug dealers and anyone who murders a police officer.
*Additional reporting by Truthdig.