Thursday, March 14, 2019
From staff and wire service reports
Gov. Gavin Newsom signs the executive order placing a moratorium on the death penalty at his Capitol office yesterday in Sacramento.
The 737 inmates on the nation’s largest death row got a reprieve from California Gov. Gavin Newsom yesterday when he signed an executive order placing a moratorium on executions.
Newsom also withdrew the lethal injection regulations that death penalty opponents already have tied up in courts and moved to shutter the new execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison that has never been used.
“It’s a very emotional place that I stand,” Newsom told reporters after signing the order. “This is about who I am as a human being, this is about what I can or cannot do; to me this was the right thing to do.”
Newsom, a Democrat, called the death penalty “a failure” that “has discriminated against defendants who are mentally ill, black and brown, or can’t afford expensive legal representation.” He also said innocent people have been wrongly convicted and sometimes put to death.
He said his views on the death penalty were first shaped 40 years ago when he learned of his grandfather’s and father’s advocacy for a wrongfully convicted man.
“I was a young man learning that life story,” he said after signing the order. “I’ve gotten a sense over a course of many, many years over the disparities in our criminal justice system.”
President Donald Trump tweeted yesterday that voters don’t support Newsom’s decision.
“Friends and families of the always forgotten VICTIMS are not thrilled, and neither am I!” Trump wrote.
Reaction of the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice (“CACJ”) was favorable. It declared:
“California leads the nation in the number of those condemned to death. Nearly a quarter of all persons on death row in the U.S. are California prisoners awaiting their execution at the hands of the State. The process takes decades amidst a broken and costly system which disproportionately imposes the death penalty upon the poor and persons of color, too many of whom are later exonerated. Virtually every civilized country in the world has abolished the use of death as a means of punishment for crime.
“As our enlightened Governor has shown with this action, it is time for California to recognize that the death penalty is ineffective, barbaric, immoral, and has no place in our civilized society. CACJ is hopeful that Gov. Newsom will continue his leadership by encouraging the electorate to abolish the death penalty.”
‘Slap in Face’
The legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation had a different view. Kent Scheidegger said:
“The people have voted for the death penalty eleven times since 1972, including three times in the last seven years. The governor’s decision to grant a blanket reprieve to prevent executions is an abuse of power and a slap in the face of the families of murder victims.”
“With the strong possibility that the delay of executions of the state’s worst murderers was about to end, the governor has decided to thwart the will of the people and the judgment of over 700 juries to prevent the enforcement of the law.”
Michele Hanisee, president of Los Angeles County’s Association of Deputy District Attorneys, asserted:
“The voters of the State of California support the death penalty. That is powerfully demonstrated by their approval of Proposition 66 in 2016 to ensure the death penalty is implemented, and their rejection of measures to end the death penalty in 2016 and 2006.
“Governor Newsom, who supported the failed initiative to end the death penalty in 2006, is usurping the express will of California voters and substituting his personal preferences via this hasty and ill-considered moratorium on the death penalty.”
U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, applauded Newsom’s decision.
“As a career law enforcement official, I have opposed the death penalty because it is immoral, discriminatory, ineffective, and a gross misuse of taxpayer dollars,” she said in a statement.
Public Defender’s Reaction
Los Angeles County Public Defender Ricardo Garcia released a statement saying:
“The governor’s decision brings California closer to ending the death penalty, a deeply flawed and racially biased system that fails to improve public safety.
Only last year, Vincente Benavides, a man who had spent 25 years on death row in California, was exonerated. Mr. Benavides had always maintained his innocence, and he had no criminal record or history of violence. An innocent man could have been executed. This is only one reason why the moratorium is so important.”
“California leads the way in criminal justice reform from juvenile sentencing to ending the war on drugs. It is time to lead on ending the death penalty. It is time for California to eliminate any chance of executing an innocent person, and it is time we stop spending over $150 million a year on a system that treats people differently based on race and income.
“We cannot fully address the racial and income bias that plagues criminal justice without addressing the role that the death penalty plays in devaluing the lives of people of color and the poor, and Governor Newsom is moving in the right direction by stopping executions.”
12 Years Ago
California has not executed anyone since 2006. Although voters in 2016 narrowly approved a ballot measure to speed up the punishment, no condemned inmate faced imminent execution.
Since California’s last execution, its death row population has grown to house one of every four condemned inmates in the United States. They include Scott Peterson, whose trial for killing his wife Laci riveted the country, and Richard Davis, who kidnapped 12-year-old Polly Klaas during a slumber party and strangled her.
While the governor’s move is certain to be challenged in court, aides say his power to grant reprieves is written into the state Constitution and that he is not altering any convictions or allowing any condemned inmate a chance at an early release.
A governor needs approval from the state Supreme Court to pardon or commute the sentence of anyone twice convicted of a felony, and the justices last year blocked several clemency requests by former Gov. Jerry Brown that did not involve condemned inmates.
Other governors also have enacted moratoriums. Republican Illinois Gov. George Ryan was the first to do so since 2000 and later was followed by Pennsylvania, Washington and Oregon. Illinois ultimately outlawed executions, as did Washington.
Newsom said the death penalty isn’t a deterrent, wastes taxpayer dollars and is flawed because it is “irreversible and irreparable in the event of human error.” It’s also costly—California has spent $5 billion since 1978 on its death row, he said.
More than six in 10 condemned California inmates are minorities, which his office cited as proof of racial disparities in who is sentenced to die. Since 1973, five California inmates who were sentenced to death were later exonerated, his office said.
Brown also opposed the death penalty, but his administration moved to restart executions after voters acted in 2016 to allow the use of a single lethal injection and speed up appeals. His administration’s regulations are stalled by challenges in both state and federal court, though those lawsuits may be halted now that Newsom is officially withdrawing the regulations.
Pardons and Commutations
Brown said he was satisfied with his record number of pardons and commutations, though he never attempted to commute a death sentence. He had focused on sweeping changes to criminal penalties and reducing the prison population.
“I’ve done what I want to do,” Brown said shortly before leaving office, defending his decision not to endorse death penalty repeal efforts in 2012 and 2016. “I’ve carved out my piece of all this.”
Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, of Greenbrae has said he plans to seek the two-thirds vote the Legislature requires to put another repeal measure on the 2020 ballot. Levine’s district includes San Quentin State Prison.
A repeal question also was on the ballot in 2016 with the question to speed up executions. It lost by seven points while the other question was approved by two points.
Newsom’s aides said it has not yet been decided what will become of the execution chamber, or whether corrections officials have been told to top preparing for executions, for instance by running drills.
Seventy-nine condemned California inmates have died of natural causes since the state reinstated capital punishment in 1978. Another 26 committed suicide. California has executed 13 inmates, while two were executed in other states.
Newsom’s office said 25 condemned inmates have exhausted all of their appeals and could have faced execution if the courts approved the state’s new lethal injection method.
Copyright 2019, Metropolitan News Company