California Governor Gavin Newsom Will Order Moratorium on Executions

Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty

Tomorrow, California Gov. Gavin Newsom will announce he is halting executions in the state for the time being, according to the New York Times.

There are currently 737 inmates on death row in California, the largest number of any state in the country.

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From the Times:

In an executive order Mr. Newsom plans to sign on Wednesday, he will do three things: grant reprieves to the inmates currently on death row — they will still be under a death sentence, but not at risk of execution; close the execution chamber at San Quentin prison; and withdraw the state’s lethal injection protocol, the formally approved procedure for carrying out executions.

“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 plans to say tomorrow, according to a prepared statement. “In short, the death penalty is inconsistent with our bedrock values and strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a Californian.”

Newsom’s executive order is largely symbolic, not practical. Lawsuits over the use of capital punishment by the three-drug cocktail method have contributed to stalling executions in California, where a criminal has not been put to death since 2006.

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But in 2016, Californians rejected a proposition that would end capital punishment, while supporting a proposition that speeds up the appeals process in death penalty cases.

For that reason, some see Newsom’s move as undemocratic.

“I think this would be a bold step and I think he’s got to be aware of the political downside,” Michael D. Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, pro-death penalty organization that helped draft the recent proposition in its favor, told the Times. “Voters have had multiple opportunities in California over three decades to abandon the death penalty and they’ve shut them down at every chance.”

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It’s likely that legal challenges will follow Newsom’s order. The president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys in Los Angeles, Michele Hanisee, told the Times that the moratorium would be “in effect, invalidating the law” supported in referendums.

“[Californians support for the death penalty] surprises me too, sometimes,” Hanisee told the Times. “California is liberal, I think we all know that. We have Hollywood, and the music industry, which I think affects people’s thinking. I think with the death penalty it comes down to specifics of cases. We have serial killers and lots of bad people in California.”

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Newsom will be the fourth governor of a state to put a moratorium on the use of capital punishment, following Oregon, Colorado, and Pennsylvania. Many other states have made the practice illegal though their legislatures or courts.

The reasons for opposition to the death penalty are myriad, and include both moral and economic qualms. There is a significant racial disparity in those who are sentenced to death, and a disturbingly high number of those on death row have been proven innocent in recent years. Keeping the death penalty alive is also extremely expensive—California has spent nearly $5 billion on the institution since it was reinstated in 1978.

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Anti-death penalty activists are hopeful that Newsom’s order will mark a new era in their movement.

“A moratorium in California has enormous symbolic value,” Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told the Times. “It’s part of the momentum we are seeing.”

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“It is a state people look to to set the tone for national policy,” Shilpi Agarwal, an attorney at the ACLU, told the Times. “The fact that so many states have abolished the death penalty—but California hasn’t—has given people cover for this narrative that people are still supportive the death penalty.”

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