Gov. Gavin Newsom put a moratorium on the death penalty in California on Wednesday, sparing the lives of more than 700 death-row inmates.
Saying the death penalty is “ineffective, irreversible and immoral,” he signed an executive order granting reprieves to all 737 Californians awaiting executions — a quarter of the country’s death row inmates.
His action comes three years after California voters rejected an initiative to end the death penalty, instead passing a measure to speed up executions.
The Democratic governor said the death penalty system has discriminated against mentally ill defendants and people of color, has has not made the state safer and has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars.
“You, as taxpayers — you have spent $5 billion since we reinstated the death penalty in this state,” he said. “What have we gotten for that?”
But he made clear that he simply believes killing other people is wrong.
“If you rape, we don’t rape,” he said. “I think if someone kills, we don’t kill.”
California has not executed anyone in more than a decade because of legal challenges to the state’s execution protocol. But executions for more than 20 inmates who have exhausted their appeals could have resumed if those challenges were cleared up, and Newsom has said he worried that it could happen soon.
Newsom has long opposed the death penalty. While campaigning for a measure to repeal the death penalty in 2016, he told The Modesto Bee editorial board he would “be accountable to the will of the voters,” if he were elected governor.
“I would not get my personal opinions in the way of the public’s right to make a determination of where they want to take us” on the death penalty, he said.
Newsom said Wednesday that before he took office, discussing the death penalty was an “intellectual” exercise. Now that he has the power to allow executions, he said, it’s an emotional decision: he can’t be party to the system and still sleep at night.
“It’s not an abstract question any longer,” he said. “I cannot sign off on executing hundreds and hundreds of human beings.”
The moratorium will be in place for the duration of Newsom’s time in office, the governor’s office said. After that, a future governor could decide to resume executions.
California is one of 31 states with capital punishment. In recent years, other states have abolished the death penalty and several other governors have placed moratoriums on executions. The California Constitution gives the governor power to grant reprieves to inmates, providing he reports his reasoning to the Legislature.
But Newsom’s action angered death penalty proponents.
“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 late Tuesday.
“Governor Newsom, who supported the failed initiative to end the death penalty in 2006, is usurping the express will of California voters and substituting his personal preferences via this hasty and ill-considered moratorium on the death penalty.”
Preventing executions through a blanket action is an abuse of the governor’s power, death-penalty supporter Kent Scheidegger told The Bee in an interview earlier this month. The governor’s clemency powers are designed to correct individual cases of injustice, said Scheidegger, legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.
“It’s not supposed to be a weapon for blocking the enforcement of the law that the people have passed just because the governor disagrees with it,” Scheidegger said.
In addition to the moratorium, Newsom’s order also withdraws California’s legal injection protocol and closes the execution chamber at San Quentin, where most death row inmates are imprisoned. Those on death row will remain in prison under the order.
His order also points to the 164 people who have been freed from death row after they were found to be wrongfully convicted.
It follows Newsom’s first executive action related to a clemency request last month, when he ordered additional DNA testing in the case of death row inmate Kevin Cooper.
He told reporters last month that the prospect of executions resuming has been weighing on him.
“I’ve never believed in the death penalty from a moral perspective,” he said. “The disparities are really real and raw to me now, as I spend every week working on the issues of paroles and commutations and, substantively I see those disparities.”
-By Sophia Bollag, The Sacramento Bee