SACRAMENTO –- Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order Wednesday placing a moratorium on the death penalty in California, a move blasted by state Sen. Scott Wilk (R-Santa Clarita) and Assemblyman Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale) but lauded by the LA County Public Defender.
The executive order also calls for withdrawing California’s lethal injection protocols and immediately closing the execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison.
The order does not provide for the release of any individual from prison or otherwise alter any current conviction or sentence.
“The intentional killing of another person is wrong and as Governor, I will not oversee the execution of any individual,” Newsom said in a news release from the governor’s office.
“Our death penalty system has been, by all measures, a failure,” he said. “It has discriminated against defendants who are mentally ill, black and brown, or can’t afford expensive legal representation. It has provided no public safety benefit or value as a deterrent. It has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars. Most of all, the death penalty is absolute. It’s irreversible and irreparable in the event of human error.”
There are 737 people currently on death row in California. California has the largest death row population in the Western Hemisphere — one in four people on death row in the United States are in California.
The death penalty is unevenly and unfairly applied to people of color, people with mental disabilities, and people who cannot afford costly legal representation.
More than six in 10 people on California’s death row are people of color. A 2005 study found that those convicted of killing whites were more than three times as likely to be sentenced to death as those convicted of killing blacks and more than four times as likely as those convicted of killing Latinos.
At least 18 of the 25 people executed in the U.S. in 2018 had one or more of the following impairments: significant evidence of mental illness; evidence of brain injury, developmental brain damage, or an IQ in the intellectually disabled range; chronic serious childhood trauma, neglect, and/or abuse.
Innocent people have been sentenced to death in California. Since 1973, 164 condemned prisoners nationwide, including five in California, have been freed from death row after they were found to have been wrongfully convicted.
No person has been executed since 2006 because California’s execution protocols have not been lawful. Yet today, 25 California death row inmates have exhausted all of their state and federal appeals and could be eligible for an execution date.
Since 1978, California has spent $5 billion on a death penalty system that has executed 13 people. Three states — Oregon, Colorado and Pennsylvania — have Governor-imposed moratoria on the death penalty and in 2018, the Washington State Supreme Court struck down the death penalty as unconstitutional and “racially biased.”
A copy of the executive order signed Wednesday can be found here.
Scott Wilk Response
“My thoughts and sympathies are with the victims of violent crime today,” California Sen. Scott Wilk (R-Santa Clarita) said in a separate statement Wednesday.
“Gov. Newsom’s unilateral decision to place a moratorium on the death penalty is a slap in their face, especially after California’s voters reiterated their support for capital punishment a little over two years ago.
“If the governor believes the death penalty is wrong and should be abolished, he should put it before the voters, not unilaterally re-victimize innocent families and loved ones of the victim.”
Tom Lackey Response
“Governor Newsom just demonstrated his first questionable action to be a leader for all Californians by putting his own views above the will of the people,” California Assemblyman Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale), also vice chair of the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee, said in a separate statement.
“In 2016, Californians spoke loud and clear by rejecting a plan to repeal the death penalty by a decisive margin. It’s disappointing that Governor Newsom would go back on his promise to honor the voters’ choice.
“It’s not just voters that Governor Newsom is ignoring, but murder victims and their families as well. What do you say to someone who’s finding out from a press conference that their loved one’s killer won’t face justice?
“Death row inmates are not ordinary criminals. They are kidnappers. They are cop-killers. They are rapists who murdered their victims. These are the monsters Governor Newsom is protecting.”
Los Angeles County Public Defender Response
“The Los Angeles County Public Defender strongly supports Gov. Gavin Newsom’s moratorium on executions in California, a historic step for criminal justice reform in California,” the PD said in a statement Wednesday.
“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 Gov. Newsom is moving in the right direction by stopping executions.”