California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday signed an executive order that effectively ends the death penalty in the state, at least for the duration of his time in office.
Newsom addressed his decision at a news conference in Sacramento and cited his own moral and fiscal objections to the practice:
“I cannot sign off on executing hundreds and hundreds of human beings knowing that among them will be innocent human beings,”
“It’s not an abstract question any longer. Twenty-five people have exhausted their appeals.”
Those 25 are among the state’s 737 death row inmates whose lives will be spared by the order but who will remain in prison for their crimes. The law doesn’t allow the governor to unilaterally abolish the death penalty, but the state constitution gives him the power to grant reprieves to condemned convicts.
He also has the ability to order the state’s execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison in Marin County to be dismantled, which Newsom said was happening as he spoke Wednesday morning.
As part of his moral objection to the killing of convicted criminals, Newsom said that the death penalty is “unevenly and unfairly” applied to non-white people, people with mental health issues and the poor. The criminal justice system “is skewed against black and brown people,” he said.
Newsom also said that since 1973, 164 innocent people — including five in California — have been executed nationwide.
He criticized the cost of the state’s death penalty program, saying that it has cost California $5 billion to administer since 1978 and that only 13 people have been put to death during that time. Newsom said that he has met with crime victims over the course of many years, including about a dozen while contemplating his decision, and that he has heard passionate opinions both for and against the death penalty from those who have suffered at the hands of the condemned.
“To the victims all I can say is that we owe you and we need to do more and better. … We cannot advance the death penalty in an effort to try to soften the blow of what happened (to victims).”
The decision runs counter to what a majority of voters decided in 2016 when they rejected Proposition 62, which would have abolished the death penalty in the state.
Some of the state’s top law enforcement professionals voiced opposition to the effective end of death row.
Stanislaus County District Attorney Brigit Fladager, president of the California District Attorneys Association said:
“Californians made it clear as recently as 2016 that they support maintaining the death penalty as an option in the most egregious homicide cases. … It is unfortunate that this action will circumvent that will.”
Newsom said his views on the death penalty are well-established and that his decision shouldn’t be a surprise to the state’s citizens. “The will of the voters is also entrusted to me based on my right to grant a reprieve,” he said.
Many state and national political leaders weighed in to support Newsom’s decision, with presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, echoing his moral and fiscal objections.
President Donald Trump Tweeted out his opposition to the moratorium:
“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!”
Because the death penalty is still legal in the state, the next incoming governor could reverse Newsom’s decision, baring a successful ballot measure to permanently do away with it.
Newsom hinted Wednesday that he would support such a measure and noted that one could be in the works for the 2020 election.
Quoting Bryan Stevenson, a well-known social justice advocate, Newsom said:
“Ultimately the way to end the death penalty in California is to go to the ballot. It’s not a question of … whether or not people deserve to die for their heinous act. … The question is do we have the right to kill. I don’t believe we do.”