Gov. Gavin Newsom Halts Executions In California, Calls Death Penalty 'A Failure'

The Democratic governor signed an executive order granting temporary reprieve for the state's 737 death row inmates.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on Wednesday announced an indefinite moratorium on the state’s death penalty, suspending a practice he believes discriminates against marginalized communities while failing to make the state any safer.

The governor signed an executive order that halts executions for the 737 inmates currently on death row, closes the never-before-used execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison and withdraws the state’s lethal injections protocol. No inmates will be released as a result of the directive nor will any current sentences be altered.

“I do not believe that a civilized society can claim to be a leader in the world as long as its government continues to sanction the premeditated and discriminatory execution of its people,” Newsom said in prepared remarks. “The death penalty is inconsistent with our bedrock values and strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a Californian.”

Newsom has long been a vocal opponent of the death penalty, stating the practice discriminates against people of color, mentally ill people and poor people, and that it has put to death those wrongfully convicted of crimes.

California has the largest death row population in the U.S. by far, housing 25 percent of the country’s condemned inmates. Because the state hasn’t executed anyone since 2006 due to legal challenges, Newsom’s order is largely viewed as symbolic.

Death penalty opponents hope California’s suspension of executions will inspire other states to follow suit. Thirty-six states have either abolished the death penalty, put executions on hold or not carried out an execution in at least five years.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signs the executive order placing a moratorium on the death penalty at his Capitol office Wednesday, March 13, 2019, in Sacramento, Calif.
Gov. Gavin Newsom signs the executive order placing a moratorium on the death penalty at his Capitol office Wednesday, March 13, 2019, in Sacramento, Calif.

Critics of the moratorium say Newsom’s executive order ignores the will of the people since California voters in 2016 rejected a state ballot initiative to abolish the death penalty. In that same election, state voters narrowly approved a measure to speed up death row inmates’ executions by limiting their time for appeals to five years.

“Do we have the right to kill? That’s a deep and existential question,” Newson said during a Wednesday press conference announcing the moratorium. “I don’t believe we do. I know people think ‘eye for eye.’ But if you rape, we don’t rape. And I think if someone kills, we don’t kill. We’re better than that.”

Asked to justify his decision to move forward with the moratorium despite the results of the 2016 ballot initiatives, Newsom said he has a constitutional right to do so as governor and that he could not bring himself to sign off on executions.

“It’s a very emotional place that I stand in,” Newsom said. “I cannot sign off on executing hundreds and hundreds of human beings knowing among them will be innocent human beings.”

He noted that his directive does not change California’s death penalty law, which can only be struck down by California voters or adjudication of the Supreme Court. Later Wednesday, California Assemblyman Marc Levine (D) introduced a measure to add an initiative banning the state’s death penalty to the 2020 ballot.

President Donald Trump, who has suggested expanding the death penalty so drug dealers are subject to it, lamented that California’s “stone cold killers” will not be executed under Newsom’s order.

“Friends and families of the always forgotten VICTIMS are not thrilled, and neither am I!” he tweeted Wednesday.

Newson, in his prepared remarks, dubbed California’s death penalty an immoral “failure” that has provided no public safety benefit while costing the state’s taxpayers billions of dollars.

There’s no reliable evidence to suggest capital punishment deters murder or protects police, according to a 2012 report released by the National Academy of the Sciences. In fact, the murder rate in states with the death penalty is consistently higher than in states without it.

Studies show the death penalty disproportionately affects minority communities and people with mental illnesses. At least 18 of the 25 people who were executed last year had significant evidence of mental illness, intellectually damaging brain injuries or chronic childhood trauma or abuse, according to a Death Penalty Information Center report released in December.

Most industrialized nations have abolished the death penalty, yet the U.S. executes more people than any other democracy on the planet.

“There’s a reason why, today, three out of four countries around the world have either abolished the death penalty or no longer use it,” Newsom said. “The intentional killing of another person is wrong.”

This story has been updated with additional comments from Newsom.

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