SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In a bold stroke meant to keep California at the cutting edge of criminal justice, Gov. Gavin Newsom will sign an executive order Wednesday placing a moratorium on the death penalty in the Golden State.
The policy will serve as an instant reprieve for the 737 people on death row in California, which has the largest death row population in the nation. The Democrat’s order will immediately close the execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison and withdraw California’s lethal injection protocol. The order will not alter any current conviction or sentence, or lead to the release of any prisoner currently on death row.
With Newsom’s move, California joins Colorado, Pennsylvania and Oregon as the fourth state to place a moratorium on the death penalty, though the length and reasoning for the moratoriums vary from state to state.
California’s executions were halted in 2006 when a condemned inmate challenged the state’s protocol for lethal injection, ensnaring California in legal challenges that continue today. But Newsom faced a deadline, because that legal process could soon come to an end. A judge is reviewing the latest execution protocol submitted by the state, and Newsom believed that its approval could come soon — clearing the way for executions to begin in California again.
Newsom has long opposed the death penalty, but has been wrestling with what action to take as governor. In remarks Wednesday, Newsom plans to note that 25 inmates on California’s death row have exhausted their legal appeals and “could soon be eligible for execution.”
Just last month, Newsom issued an executive order that allowed for new DNA testing of evidence in the high-profile case of death row inmate Kevin Cooper, who was sentenced in 1985 for the murders of four people and has exhausted his appeals. Cooper has long maintained his innocence, and former California Gov. Jerry Brown, another Democrat, agreed to some limited retesting of evidence in the case last year.
Since becoming governor, Newsom has been meeting with the families of victims, as well as law enforcement officials, while consulting with his legal team about what action to take.
Ultimately, Newsom decided the moratorium was in the best interest of the state, because he believes the death penalty “is inconsistent with our bedrock values and strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a Californian.”
In his speech on Wednesday, the governor will highlight the racial disparities in sentencing — noting that 6 in 10 prisoners on California’s death row are people of color — the cost of enforcing the death penalty and the number of innocent people who have been sentenced to death.
Since 1973, a total of 164 prisoners nationally — including five from California — have been freed after they were wrongfully convicted, according to “The Innocence List” maintained by The Death Penalty Information Center.
“Our death penalty system has been — by any measure — a failure,” Newsom plans to say in his remarks. “It has discriminated against defendants who are mentally ill, black and brown, or cannot afford expensive legal representation. It has provided no public safety benefit or value as a deterrent. It has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars. But most of all, the death penalty is absolute, irreversible and irreparable in the event of human error.”
“The intentional killing of another person is wrong, and as governor, I will not oversee the execution of any individual,” he plans to say.
In 2016 while serving as lieutenant governor, Newsom endorsed a failed California ballot measure that would have repealed the death penalty — an issue so controversial that then-Gov. Brown and then-Attorney General Kamala Harris did not take positions. Aides to Harris, now a Democratic US senator and 2020 presidential candidate, have said she felt that she had a duty to uphold the death penalty as attorney general, even though she personally opposed it. She also remained neutral on ballot measures as attorney general because she was responsible for writing the title and summary language for all propositions
At that time, Newsom said he understood that the issue “raises deeply felt passions on all sides” but he believed that Americans ultimately would look back on the death penalty “as an archaic mistake.”