Gov. Gavin Newsom’s historic decision to impose a moratorium on the death penalty delivers on the bold change he promised during his campaign, whether or not you agree with it.
His decision will make many people unhappy. Some 53 percent of Californians voted against abolishing the death penalty in 2016. Yet Newsom’s unprecedented move also distinguishes him as a leader willing to be honest and forthright about one of society’s most challenging moral issues.
For years, Democratic leaders have stalled and delayed executions because the death penalty violates their moral consciences. Newsom’s refusing to play that game. Just three months into his administration, he’s saying exactly where he stands and has put himself on the hook for the political consequences.
“I do not believe that a civilized society can claim to be a leader in the world as long as its government continues to sanction the premeditated and discriminatory execution of its people,” Newsom said. “In short, the death penalty is inconsistent with our bedrock values and strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a Californian.”
“Our death penalty system has been — by any measure — a failure,” he added.
Newsom’s executive order, which halts all death penalty proceedings for the duration of his term in office, hinges on three main arguments:
— The death penalty is racist and discriminatory. “More than six in ten 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.” In addition, said Newsom, people with brain injuries, intellectual disabilities and serious childhood trauma comprised “18 of the 25 people executed in the U.S. in 2018.”
— The death penalty kills innocent people. “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.” While no evidence suggests California has executed any innocents, the governor’s office pointed to a 2014 study that estimated “at least one in 25 people would be exonerated” nationwide if they remained under death sentences “indefinitely.” “The death penalty is absolute. Irreversible and irreparable in the event of human error,” Newsom said.
— The death penalty costs too much and delivers too little. California has spent an estimated $5 billion on the death penalty system since 1978, according to the governor’s office. Yet “an analysis of U.S. murder data from 1987-2015 found no evidence that the death penalty deters murder or protects police,” according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
We have no doubt that Newsom’s executive order will be challenged in every way possible by death penalty supporters and political actors seeking a path to relevance. We also recognize the pain this decision will bring to the families and friends of those victimized by death row convicts. They may feel cheated out of justice. But current death row inmates will never set foot beyond prison walls.
The truth is California hasn’t really had a death penalty since 2006, when the state executed a 76-year-old legally blind diabetic in a wheelchair named Clarence Ray Allen. Since then, legal battles over whether the state can carry out the death penalty in a constitutional manner have ground what Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun called “the machinery of death” to a halt.
We commend Newsom for thinking boldly and acknowledge that his reasoning as outlined above is sound and in alignment with previous positions The Bee has taken on this matter. And we can’t help but wonder if this decision belongs to the people of California as much as it does to a single person. While we are engaged in a moratorium, will Newsom also consider a new referendum at the ballot box?
The idea would not be new to him: While campaigning for a measure to repeal the death penalty in 2016, he told The Modesto Bee Editorial Board he would “be accountable to the will of the voters,” if he were elected governor.
“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” on the death penalty, he said.
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