CALmatters: Newsom to halt death penalty in state through moratorium on executions

An executive order signed by Gov. Newsom will effectively put an end to the death penalty in California — as long as he’s governor.
Graphic: Winters Express
Graphic: Winters Express

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By Laurel Rosenhall CALmatters Gov. Gavin Newsom plans to sign an executive order on Wednesday putting a moratorium on the death penalty in California and shuttering the execution chamber at San Quentin, a move that overrides a decision the state’s voters made in 2016 to maintain capital punishment. “I want to give the voters a chance to reconsider,” Newsom told CALmatters during an interview last year. “I believe very, very strongly in keeping people that prey on innocent people behind bars, for life if necessary. I just don’t believe that we as a society should systemically be killing members of society.” Under the governor’s reprieve, all 737 people on death row will remain in prison and, on paper, sentenced to death. But executions will be halted as long as Newsom remains governor. A future governor would have the power to change their fate. Newsom’s executive order argues that the death penalty is unfair, applied disproportionately to people of color and people with mental disabilities. It says innocent people have been sentenced to die, including five Californians since 1973 who were found to have been wrongfully convicted. His move is part of a larger swing in California away from tough-on-crime policies. In the last decade, Democrats who control state government and the state’s largely liberal voters have embraced policies to eliminate the use of money bail, reduce some non-violent felonies to misdemeanors and legalize marijuana. But the death penalty so far has been politically untouchable — repeatedly favored by voters despite their progressive tendencies on other issues. In 2016, California voters passed a ballot measure to expedite executions and defeated a measure to end the death penalty. A leading supporter of the death penalty said Newsom’s action is legal but “contrary to basic democratic principles.” “The decision of whether we will have the death penalty or not is one the people have made over and over again through the initiative process,” said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which advocates for capital punishment. “It’s improper for an executive to use the reprieve power to frustrate the people’s position.” Death penalty opponents urged Jerry Brown to grant a reprieve when he was governor, but he never did, despite his personal opposition to capital punishment. They have been lobbying Newsom to do the same since he was sworn-in in January. Now that he’s poised to take that step, they have their sights set on the next goal, said longtime anti-death penalty advocate Natasha Minsker: “The next step would be to go further and convert death sentences to life without parole.” Watch Newsom’s comments on the death penalty here:

Laurel Rosenhall is a political reporter for CALmatters. is a non-profit, non-partisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. The Winters Express is a CALmatters media partner.]]>

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