When Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order Wednesday putting a moratorium on the death penalty in California, he called it the culmination of a personal, 40-year journey.
He spoke about meeting men imprisoned in San Quentin State Prison, including a former high school classmate on death row and a foster brother who did time for dealing crack cocaine.
He described meeting a wrongfully convicted man, Pete Pianezzi, who narrowly escaped death row and was later pardoned, and whose case was championed by Newsom’s father and grandfather.
Saying the death penalty is “ineffective, irreversible and immoral,” Newsom granted reprieves to all 737 Californians awaiting executions – sparing the lives of a quarter of the country’s death row inmates as long as he is governor.
He said the death penalty system has discriminated against mentally ill defendants and people of color, has not made the state safer and has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars.
He cited the 164 people nationwide who have been freed from death row after they were found to be wrongfully convicted.
But in the end, the Democratic governor said he made an emotional decision: “I cannot sign off on executing hundreds and hundreds of human beings.”
His action comes three years after California voters rejected an initiative to end the death penalty, instead passing a measure to speed up executions.
On Wednesday, Assemblyman Marc Levine proposed giving Californians yet another chance to weigh in: the San Rafael Democrat is introducing a constitutional amendment that would abolish capital punishment if approved by voters in 2020. Newsom said he will support the measure if the Legislature puts it on the ballot.
To crime victims, Newsom said, “we owe you, and we need to do more and do better. But we cannot advance the death penalty in an effort to soften the blow of what happened.”
The California Constitution gives the governor power to grant reprieves to inmates, and Newsom’s move generated widespread praise from fellow Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and California Sen. Kamala Harris.
But Newsom’s action angered death penalty proponents.
President Donald Trump alluded to California voters’ support for the death penalty when he criticized Newsom on Wednesday morning.
“Defying voters, the Governor of California will halt all death penalty executions of 737 stone cold killers,” the Republican president tweeted. “Friends and families of the always forgotten VICTIMS are not thrilled, and neither am I!”
While campaigning for the death penalty repeal measure in 2016, Newsom told The Modesto Bee editorial board he would “be accountable to the will of the voters” on the death penalty if he became governor.
Newsom reneged on his commitment, said Assemblyman Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale.
“It’s a reversal of the position he had indicated that he was going to take,” he said. “You’ve got to remember, you’ve got families that are reeling from the brutal nature in which they lost their loved ones.”
Newsom said Wednesday that, before he took office, discussing the death penalty was an “intellectual” exercise. Now that he has the power to allow executions, he said, it’s an emotional decision that keeps him up at night.
“It’s not an abstract question any longer,” he said.
California has not executed anyone in more than a decade because of legal challenges to the state’s execution protocol. But executions for 25 inmates who have exhausted their appeals could have resumed soon if those challenges were resolved, Newsom said.
California is one of 31 states with capital punishment, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In recent years, other states have abolished the death penalty and several other governors have placed moratoriums on executions.
This moratorium will be in place for the duration of Newsom’s time in office, the governor’s office said. After that, a future governor could decide to resume executions.
Newsom’s order also withdraws California’s lethal injection protocol and closes the execution chamber at San Quentin, where most death row inmates are imprisoned. It doesn’t free anyone on death row.
Newsom said his ultimate goal is to end capital punishment.
“If you rape, we don’t rape,” he said. “I think if someone kills, we don’t kill.”