Despite facing opposition, the newly-elected California governor reaffirms his executive order, signaling a shift in the American perspective on capital punishment
WHEN California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a moratorium on the state’s death penalty last week, it caused a stir, to put it lightly.
National outlets picked up the news, op-eds were written about the overall relevance of capital punishment and death row victims and their families came out of the woodwork to — with valid reasons — publicly denounce the move.
As previously reported by the Asian Journal, Newsom signed an executive order on Wednesday, March 13 that would implement a moratorium on the death penalty, which means that for as long as Newsom is governor, death row won’t exist.
Though it’s not the total abolition of the death penalty, which would need to be decided by voters, the 737 inmates currently sitting on Death Row were then granted reprieves from execution.
The death chamber at San Quentin State Prison was effectively closed after the executive order was signed and the state has seized acquiring the materials and chemicals needed for lethal injection executions.
“I didn’t come to this flippantly, lightly over just a few weeks,” Newsom told reporters in an ethnic news telebriefing on Tuesday, March 19.
During this telebriefing — the governor’s first ethnic media briefing since entering office in January — Newsom clarified and expanded on his decision by reiterating that the 737 death row inmates who were reprieved were not granted commuted sentences.
“I want to remind everyone that no one is being released. The sentences have not been commuted and we are not arguing against the heinous nature of any of these crimes,” Newsom assured, stating that he plans “to work collaboratively with the attorney general’s office” to seize prosecuting crimes as death-penalty cases.
The next course of action for the 737 inmates would be “consideration” to commute death sentences to life without parole, which may require approval from the California Supreme Court.
Newsom cited several reasons that led him to implement the moratorium.
Notably, the extravagant cost of maintaining the death penalty — which is estimated to have cost the state $5 billion since 1978, according to a report from Loyola Law School — was a major reason for the moratorium, and Newsom said the administration plans to divert the funds the state would be saving from keeping inmates out of death row to other state-funded resources.
The perceived racial and economic disparities among those who are on death row were a huge factor, Newsom noted. As he stated in his initial announcement, the governor pointed out that nearly 67 percent of all death row inmates are people of color.
Although the population of inmates of color leans heavily black and Hispanic, there is also a significant number of indigenous Americans and Asian Americans, including at least one Filipino death row inmate. (Filipino-American Sonny Enraca has been on death row for 19 years for killing two people while in the Filipino street gang Akrho Boyz Crazzys.)
Financial disparities also affect an inmate’s likelihood of winning an appeal. Some inmates who can’t afford quality legal representation are likely to lose all their appeals and, in turn, are more likely to be executed.
Of the 159 wrongfully-convicted inmates who have been exonerated across the country, five have been from California, which has the most populous death row.
Newsom emphasized, again, that the system shouldn’t forgive these inmates, citing once again the “gruesome” natures of many of the crimes that led these inmates to death penalty sentences. But he’s firm on the justification that capital punishment discriminates based on ethnicity and income status.
“The entire criminal justice system treats people differently based on wealth, how they look and where they live,” Newsom said, noting the overwhelming number of death row inmates who hail from Los Angeles and Riverside counties. “You’re better off being rich and guilty than poor and innocent.”
According to a report from the National Academy of Sciences which Newsom cited, one in four death row inmates are likely innocent of their crimes. Using that benchmark, Newsom said there may be 30 innocent people sitting on death row right now.
Though former Gov. Jerry Brown opposed the death penalty, he never placed a moratorium on it or had to be in the position to decide whether or not to pardon an inmate from execution in either of his terms.
Newsom, on the other hand, noted that 25 inmates on Death Row have exhausted all of their appeals and the state would soon have to start executions. The state has not executed a Death Row inmate since 2006.
“We were estimating as early as April to continue to support the previous administration’s objection protocol,” Newsom said. “That’s fundamentally what precipitated my consideration, and whether or not I was willing to move forward with that, and if I wasn’t willing to move forward to that, it would beg the question of what is my position on the death penalty.”
Since the announcement, victims and the families of victims of death row inmates have denounced Newsom’s executive order, including Phyllis Loya whose son was Pittsburg, California police officer Larry Lasater who was killed in the line of duty by a death row inmate.
“My reaction to the moratorium is that he betrayed us,” Loya told the radio station 90.9 WBUR in Boston. “It is very clear from our last election on this issue that the will of the people in California was not only to keep the death penalty but to enforce it, to fix our system which was broken and stop the delay for families of decades like mine.”
Throughout Newsom’s political career, he has consistently denounced capital punishment, which he calls “an administration of death” that “consumes court time and the criminal justice system and exhausts the soul and the pocketbook.”
Newsom campaigned against ballot measures in 2006 and 2012 in which voters, both times, voted in favor of the death penalty.
Since the death penalty was reinstated in California in 1978, the state has executed 13 people. Additionally, due to the grave nature of the practice and how lengthy one’s stay can be on death row, 120 inmates in California have died of either natural causes or suicide.
He continued, “I’ve quite literally…read over 230 of the crimes that were committed in some detail, gruesome and horrific detail. We don’t do this lightly, we don’t celebrate this action and weighs heavily on me and my conscience as it does on others’. This is a very sober and deliberate process that led me to this decision.”