737 Death Row Inmates in California Get a Reprieve From Gov. Gavin Newsom

Photo: Kevork Djansezian (Getty Images)

There are 737 people on death row in California, and on Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom gave them all a reprieve because he believes the death penalty is immoral and discriminatory.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Newsom will issue an executive order on Wednesday to officially declare a moratorium on capital punishment in the state that will include an immediate shutdown of the death chamber at San Quentin Prison, where the last execution took place in 2006.

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The governor said in a statement, “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. The death penalty is inconsistent with our bedrock values and strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a Californian.”

Opponents of the death penalty narrowly missed repealing it twice at the ballot box. Both ballot measures received 48 percent of the vote in 2012 and 47 percent in 2016. Newsom supported both initiatives. In 2016, supporters of the death penalty put forth an initiative to speed up the execution process, and that initiative passed.

California enacted the death penalty in 1978. It can only be repealed by vote. While Newsom cannot repeal the law, he said he will grant reprieves to anyone who is sentenced to death while he holds office.

The reprieves are temporary orders and only remain in effect while Newsom is in office.

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Newsom said he is able to make this decision unilaterally because he is not commuting any sentences. As the Chronicle explains, executive clemency would reduce a person’s sentence from death to life in prison without parole, and in most cases that would require a majority approval from the state Supreme Court.

In explaining his decision, Newsom noted that the death penalty has “discriminated against defendants who are mentally ill, black and brown, or can’t afford expensive legal representation.” He added that not only are more than three-fifths of the people on California’s death row people of color, but studies have shown that those convicted of killing white people are more likely to be sentenced to death that those who kill black or latinos.

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Newsom said the state has spent $5 billion trying, convicting, imprisoning and executing people on death row since 1978, but there is no real evidence the death penalty deters murder, and there has been no increase in homicides in states that have ended capital punishment. He also noted that since 1973, 164 condemned people—including five in the state of California—have been freed from death row based on evidence that they were wrongly convicted or sentenced.

“But most of all, the death penalty is absolute, irreversible and irreparable in the event of human error,” he said.

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After the state of California executed Clarence Ray Allen in January 2006, a federal judge in San Jose ruled that the flaws in the state’s lethal injection procedures, equipment and staff training could cause an inmate to suffer an agonizing death, thereby making the state capital punishment procedures unconstitutional. Since then, the state has been trying alternatives that would satisfy the federal court.

Newsom’s moratorium on capital punishment in the state also puts an end to those efforts, but again, only as long as Newsom is in office.

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Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.)—who has opposed the death penalty-issued the following statement in response to Newsom’s moratorium:

This is an important day for justice and for the state of California. I applaud Governor Newsom for his decision to place a moratorium on the death penalty. 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.

The symbol of our justice system is a woman with a blindfold. It is supposed to treat all equally, but the application of the death penalty - a final and irreversible punishment - has been proven to be unequally applied. Black and Latino defendants are far more likely to be executed than their white counterparts. Poor defendants without a team of lawyers are far more likely to enter death row than those with strong representation. Your race or your bank account shouldn’t determine your sentence.

It is also a waste of taxpayer money. The California Legislative Analyst’s office estimates that California would save $150 million a year if it replaced the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole. That’s money that could go into schools, health care, or restorative justice programs. It is not a smart way to keep people safe.

I believe if evidence proves one human being murdered another human being, there should be swift and severe punishment. But the death penalty in America has been imposed as a final punishment to many who were later found to be innocent. Between 1973 and 2016, for every ten people executed, more than one person has been exonerated. Killing one innocent person would be too many. It’s time to turn the page on this chapter and end a deeply flawed system of capital punishment in California.

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About the author

Monique Judge

News Editor for The Root. I said what I said. Period.