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California Gov. Gavin Newsom to impose moratorium on death penalty

A guard stands behind bars at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif., in December 2015.
A guard stands behind bars at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif., in December 2015. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on Wednesday will impose an indefinite moratorium on carrying out the death penalty, arguing that the cost, finality and racial imbalance among death-row inmates make the punishment immoral and a public policy “failure,” according to planned remarks released by his office.

Newsom will suspend the practice through an executive order that will give a reprieve from execution — though not release — to California’s 737 death row inmates, about a quarter of the nation’s population awaiting capital punishment. The order will also annul California’s lethal injection protocol and close the execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison, where the state’s most notorious criminals have been put to death.

“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 plans to say. “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.”

His plans prompted a sharp rebuke from President Trump on Wednesday morning.

“Defying voters, the Governor of California will halt all death penalty executions of 737 stone cold killers,” the president wrote in a tweet. “Friends and families of the always forgotten VICTIMS are not thrilled, and neither am I!”

Newsom, who took office in January after serving eight years as the state’s lieutenant governor, has long opposed the death penalty. He is Catholic, and his faith has sometimes guided his policy decisions, including his long-standing opposition to capital punishment.

He also has gone against the Catholic Church on other policy matters, most notably as a champion of same-sex marriage as San Francisco’s mayor and through his time in state office.

As part of his remarks Wednesday, Newsom plans to say that “The intentional killing of another person is wrong. And as Governor, I will not oversee the execution of any individual.”

No executions are scheduled in California. The state last carried out an execution in 2006 when Clarence Ray Allen, a 76-year-old diabetic convicted two decades earlier of triple murder, was put to death.

California has proposed changing its lethal drug protocol, and a judge is reviewing the change amid legal challenges.

Twenty-five death row inmates in the state have exhausted their legal appeals.

Despite California’s reputation as a liberal bastion, the nation’s most populous state also has by far its largest death row population. The inmates are more than double the population of the second-largest death row, in Florida.

Even as California has shifted left on several criminal justice issues, voters have chosen to retain capital punishment, rejecting a 2016 state ballot measure to abolish it. In that same election, state voters narrowly approved a measure to speed up the pace of executions by limiting the time for appeals to five years.

Given its size, any change to California’s death row carries immediate implications for the status of American capital punishment. Newsom’s order comes as the punishment is on the decline nationwide, with executions less common and fewer states carrying them out. Last year, 25 people were executed, significantly down from the 98 executions nationwide in 1999.

Governors in Pennsylvania and Oregon have announced their own moratoriums on the death penalty. Washington state had been under a similar moratorium, and last year its Supreme Court struck down the death penalty there as “arbitrary and racially biased.”

Lawmakers, courts or both have abandoned the death penalty in Maryland, Connecticut and Illinois, among other states, in recent years. Elsewhere, officials have struggled to obtain drugs for lethal injections in the face of intense opposition from pharmaceutical companies .

Some states have begun looking to other methods besides lethal injection, the country’s primary method of execution. Tennessee used the electric chair twice last year and Utah made the firing squad its backup method of execution. Oklahoma has said it will use nitrogen gas for all executions going forward, an unprecedented move.

About 60 percent of California’s death row inmates are people of color, and a number of studies have shown that those convicted of killing a white person are far more likely to face execution than those who kill African Americans and Latinos.

Newsom will cite the fact that many of those executed in the past year nationwide have had mental impairments, and that over the past 45 years, 164 death-row inmates have later been found innocent of their crimes and released. Five of those cases occurred in California.

Taking those issues together, Newsom will declare that the policy “has been — by any measure — a failure,” placing him at odds with President Trump, who has repeatedly called for the death penalty after mass shootings and terrorist attacks.

California has spent more than $5 billion since 1978 on its death penalty program.

“It has discriminated against defendants who are mentally ill, black and brown, or can’t afford expensive legal representation,” Newsom plans to say. “It has provided no public safety benefit or value as a deterrent. It has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars. But most of all, the death penalty is absolute. Irreversible and irreparable in the event of human error.”

John Wagner contributed to this story.