The death penalty, also known as capital punishment and execution, is the sentence of death that is imposed by courts as a punishment for certain crimes. At the federal level, it is legal. However, states do have the option to abolish the practice and not allow state courts to impose the punishment.
In California, the death penalty has a complicated history. It has been abolished and reaffirmed by both state courts and voters. Currently, there is an executive moratorium on it and executions are not taking place. However, a recent cop-killer case in San Diego threatens to challenge the suspension of the punishment because a judge is allowing prosecutors to seek the death penalty.
History of the Death Penalty in California
In California, the death penalty became legal under the Criminal Practices Act of 1851. Capital punishment was carried out by hanging at San Quentin and Folsom state prisons. This method phased out in the 1940s when death by lethal gas was introduced.
In the 1960s, several challenges were filed that questioned the legality of the death penalty. In 1972, the state Supreme Court found it to be a cruel and unusual punishment and the act was outlawed. However, this did not last, and voters reaffirmed the death penalty in 1978. In 1992, executions resumed and continued to take place infrequently until the last execution in the state in 2006.
Executions in California Are On Hold
In March 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced an executive moratorium on the death penalty in California. This granted a temporary stay of execution on all the state’s 737 inmates that were currently on death row. While this suspends the use of the death penalty as punishment while the Governor is in office, it does not repeal or reject it. Only California voters can fully outlaw capital punishment by voting to end the practice.
The purpose of the moratorium was to mitigate the high costs of the death penalty and to address social concerns with capital punishment like wrongful convictions and racial disparities. In the moratorium, the Governor also stated that the death penalty had high costs for a punishment that was only used on a few citizens. For example, an upgrade to the San Quentin execution chamber cost over $850,000. It was completed in 2010 but it has never been used.
State Asks to Seek Capital Punishment Despite Moratorium
The first challenge to the Governor’s death penalty moratorium came in October 2019 when a San Diego judge granted lawyers permission to seek the death penalty as punishment in a murder case. This affirmed the right of prosecutors state-wide to seek the death penalty in applicable cases. The case has not yet reached the sentencing phase, so it is unknown what the outcome will be or if the death penalty will be assigned.
The case in question involves Jesse Gomez who was charged with the murder and attempted murder of two San Diego police officers; Officer Jonathan “JD” De Guzman and Officer Wade Irwin, respectively. In 2016, the officers were part of the gang suppression team. The officers stopped Gomez and a friend to talk late one evening but were met with a response of gunfire.
Both officers were hit by the bullets and Guzman died at the hospital. Irwin was able to return some fire and hit Gomez, who was later found unconscious, bleeding out in a nearby ravine. In addition to the murder and attempted murder allegations, Gomez was also charged with being a felon in possession of a gun and special circumstance allegation of murder of a police officer, which carries with it the possibility of the death penalty.
Since there is a moratorium on the death penalty in the state, the public defenders in the case filed a motion to prevent the prosecutors from seeking the death penalty. The prosecutors claimed that they should be able to seek the death penalty because the moratorium is not a prohibition. No one can be executed while Governor Newsom is in office, but that may not be the case under future governors.
Superior Court Judge Frederick Link agreed with the prosecution and is allowing them to seek the death penalty in this case. This means that if Gomez is found guilty and receives the death penalty, he will be added to death row. It is more than likely that he will be granted a stay of execution like the other current 737 inmates on California’s death row. His fate would then rest on future governors of California or voters to decide if he will be eventually executed.