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Gov. Gavin Newsom Halts Death Penalty In California, Despite Recent Rejections From Voters

Rich Pedroncelli / AP Photo

Gov. Gavin Newsom signs the executive order placing a moratorium on the death penalty at his Capitol office Wednesday, March 13, 2019, in Sacramento, Calif.

Rich Pedroncelli / AP Photo

Despite California voters rejecting ballot measures to abolish capital punishment twice in the last seven years, Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed an executive order that places a moratorium on executions in the state.

And he insists his action respects the will of the voters.

“I cannot sign off on executing hundreds and hundreds of human beings, knowing — knowing — that among them will be innocent human beings,” the governor said at a news conference outside the state Senate Wednesday morning. Democratic lawmakers and elected officials packed the hallway behind him in a show of solidarity.

Newsom is also withdrawing California’s lethal injection protocol and closing its lone execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison in Marin County. He is not, however, releasing any inmates or altering any convictions or sentences.

“It’s not a question,” the governor said, recounting a conversation he’d had recently with a prominent death penalty opponent, “of whether or not people deserve to die for their heinous acts. The question really is, do we have the right to kill?”

He said he doesn’t believe the answer to that “deep and existential question” is yes — even though he acknowledges the eye-for-an-eye argument made by death penalty supporters, whom he said he respected.

“If you rape, we don’t rape,” the governor said. “And I think if someone kills, we don’t kill. We’re better than that.”

The executive order can be reversed by any of Newsom’s successors in the governor’s office. But for now, it effectively freezes the cases of the 737 people currently on the country’s largest death row.

California voters have rejected two ballot measures to repeal the death penalty in recent years, Proposition 34 in 2012 and Proposition 62 in 2016.

Also in 2016, voters approved Proposition 66, an initiative backed by supporters of capital punishment that is intended to streamline the lengthy death penalty process. Under former Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation took initial steps toward implementing provisions of the measure.

Newsom has consistently opposed capital punishment during his political career. But during the Proposition 62 campaign three years ago, he said he would not let his personal opinion interfere with the will of the voters.

“My position has always been, if ever I was in a position to actually be accountable, that I would be accountable to the will of the voters,” he told the Modesto Bee in 2016. “I would not get my personal opinions in the way of the public’s right to make a determination of where they want to take us as it relates to the death penalty.”

Newsom had already declared his 2018 candidacy for governor when he made those remarks.

Asked on Wednesday how he is reconciling that statement with the executive order he just signed, he said voters knew he opposed the death penalty and elected him anyway — so now, he’s acting within his powers as governor.

“The people of the state of California have entrusted me by their will and by constitutional right to do exactly what I’m doing,” he said.

Death penalty supporters have nothing but contempt for that logic.

“This is not a moral decision when you override the will of the people so directly — especially when you said you were not going to do this,” said Palmdale Republican Asm. Tom Lackey, a former California Highway Patrol sergeant and vice-chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee.

Lackey said Newsom’s action suggests the governor shouldn’t be trusted.

“This very issue was addressed prior to his election,” the assemblyman said. “And so when he gets in power, he’s shown a whole different side, and I think that’s unfortunate.”

Democrats, meanwhile, praised the governor’s “bold leadership,” “courage” and “guts.” A group of them introduced a constitutional amendment that would ask voters for a third time to abolish capital punishment.

Newsom’s order changes little in the short term, and is more symbolic and political than practical.California hasn’t executed an inmate since January of 2006, and has put to death only 13 since voters reinstated the death penalty in 1978.

But Newsom said he was about to face decisions as governor that would put his opposition to capital punishment to the test.

“This is about who I am as a human being,” he said. “This is about what I can or cannot do. To me, this is the right thing to do.”

Ben Adler

Capitol Bureau Chief

Capitol Bureau Chief Ben Adler first became a public radio listener in the car on his way to preschool – though not necessarily by choice. Now, he leads Capital Public Radio’s state Capitol coverage, which airs on NPR stations across California.  Read Full Bio 

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