The death penalty is off the table in California. Governor Gavin Newsom, who took office earlier this year, signed an executive order abolishing the controversial practice. Now, the 737 inmates on death row, including 25 who have exhausted the lengthy appeals process, can rest easy for at least the next four years.
Newsom Concerned About Executing Innocent People
In a news conference, Newsom explained that the decision to stop the death penalty was a very personal and emotional one. With 737 death row inmates, the state would behave to line “up human beings every single day for execution for two plus years.” Since the death penalty was on track to resume in the near future, he felt an obligation to step in.
He explained that his decision was made, in part, because there’s no guarantee that all 737 inmates are guilty. Newsom cited a study conducted by the National Academy of Sciences that estimated that an average of 1 out of every 25 death row inmates is innocent. He explained that he could not in good conscience allow the state to execute inmates if there was any possibility that they were innocent. He had the power to stop the death penalty, so he used it.
Concerns Over Racial Bias Contribute to Decision to Stop Death Penalty
Newsom also cited concerns about the racial bias that is inherent in the death penalty system. Calling the system “fundamentally unfair,” he pointed out that more than half of all of California’s death row inmates are minorities. He decided to stop the death penalty from being carried out because the system is not applied fairly.
Critics Accuse Newsom of Abusing His Power as Governor
Newsom’s decision to effectively halt the death penalty in the United States was not cheered by all. Political adversaries and families of victims have been quite upset by the moratorium. Some have even gone so far as to call him a dictator.
Katie Scheidegger, the legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, argues that Newsom’s use of power to “block the enforcement of a law that the people have voted on, that he simply disagrees with, is a gross abuse of power.” She and others contend that it is his job to support what the people of California want, not to push through his own personal agenda.
However, it’s important to consider the racial breakdown in support of capital punishment. White voters tend to favor the death penalty, while only a small percentage of African American and minority voters favor the system. This is likely due to the fact that minority defendants are much more likely to be sentenced to death than white defendants.
Studies have also shown that it’s very difficult for minorities to make it onto a jury panel in a capital case. As a result, white Californians tend to have more influence over the death penalty system. In staying the death penalty, Newsom may actually be providing a voice for minorities that has been stifled for years.
Is the Moratorium on the Death Penalty Permanent?
No. Newsom signed an executive order to stop the death penalty process in California. Executive orders can easily be overturned once a new governor takes office. A new governor could reinstate the death penalty if Newsom is not reelected for a second term.
The only way California can permanently ban the death penalty is through the legislature, courts, or a ballot initiative. Voters in the state have been asked several times over the past few years to decide whether or not they want to keep the death penalty. While death penalty advocates have prevailed, the margin of victory has always been very slim.
Newsom acknowledges that voters narrowly defeated an initiative to ban the death penalty. However, he also points out that those same voters put him into office, knowing his stance on the issue.