California Gov. to Go Against Voters, Institute Death Penalty Moratorium

Gavin Newsom
California governor Gavin Newsom / Getty Images
March 13, 2019

California Governor Gavin Newsom (D., Calif.) will on Wednesday announce a moratorium on his state's death penalty, placing an indefinite pause on executions on the largest death row in the United States.

The move is widely seen by both supporters and proponents as of major importance in a national campaign to abolish the death penalty, the New York Times reported. It comes as some 20 men currently on the state's death row have finally exhausted their opportunities for appeal, which is what prompted Newsom to act.

Newsom is expected, in Wednesday morning remarks, to claim that his state's death penalty system is a waste of money and discriminates against the mentally ill and people of color. He will also make a principled claim against the death penalty on its merits, a view with which the majority of Americans have disagreed with every year since the 1970s.

"The intentional killing of another person is wrong. And as governor, I will not oversee the execution of any individual," Newsom is expected to say.

The Golden State has the largest death row in the United States, with some 737 inmates currently residing there. Many have languished for decades, thanks in large part to litigation by death penalty opponents which has stopped up the machinery of execution since 2006.

In 2016, California voters approved a ballot measure to fix the state's death penalty system, limiting the length of death penalty appeals to five years after conviction. That same year, they voted by a wider margin against a ballot measure to abolish the death penalty in the state altogether. Newsom's moratorium will therefore fly in the face of the most recent expression of the views of the people of California.

President Donald Trump attacked Newsom for just that, tweeting Wednesday morning, "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!"

The California moratorium will become the fourth in the nation, following similar ones issued under Democratic governors in Oregon, Colorado, and California. It will also contribute to a broader effort by death penalty abolitionists to oppose capital punishment through the legislative, judicial, and executive branches.

Shilpi Agarwal, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Times that a moratorium in California was key to that effort.

"It is a state people look to to set the tone for national policy," Agarwal sad. "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."

Fifty-six percent of Americans are still supportive of the death penalty for murder, and 64 percent oppose its abolition. But this reality has not stopped efforts at abolition in Oregon, New Hampshire, Wyoming, and other states.

The ultimate purpose of this project is unclear, but it is likely that abolitionists are aiming to end the death penalty in a majority of states—after which they may be able to claim, under the "evolving standards of decency" standard that capital punishment now violates the Eighth Amendment. If they do so, Newsom's moratorium will have been key to their success.

Published under: Gavin Newsom