Gov. Gavin Newsom triggered a firestorm on Wednesday by signing an executive order ordering a moratorium on the death penalty. His action effectively grants a reprieve from lethal injections for the state’s 737 death row inmates. According to Politico, his action will most benefit the 24 death row inmates who had exhausted all legal appeals.
The reaction from death penalty supporters in the Legislature was fierce.
Sen. Jim Nielsen, who is a former chair of the Board of Prison Terms, said “this executive order is an afront to our system of justice.” Senate Republican Leader Emeritus Patricia Bates said that “handing out unearned reprieves will only add to the pain felt by many of the victims’ relatives.” Asm. Melissa Melendez said that, “the Governor clearly does not represent the majority of people in this state who want to see justice served for these heinous crimes.”
The Governor’s press statements and executive order cited the usual left-wing talking points – “our death penalty system has been, by all measures, a failure . . . it has discriminated against defendants . . . (and) wasted billions in taxpayer dollars.”
So, what is the impact of the Governor’s order going forward?
As a practical matter, it probably won’t mean much. The state has not had an execution since 2006, when Clarence Ray Allen was executed. Since then, state and federal judges have tossed around the constitutionality of the state’s method of lethal objection. Brown – an avowed death penalty opponent – rejected pleas to take Newsom’s action clearing out death row in his final days in office, though no executions occurred during his administration.
There’s a real question of its legality. As National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke wrote, “the gubernatorial reprieve power is designed for case-by-case evaluations. It is not designed to be used wholesale as a means by which the executive branch can effectively decline to execute laws it opposes.”
But as a political matter, there’s no doubt that Newsom’s action defies the will of California voters. Voters have supported the death penalty every time they’ve been asked to decide since it was brought back as a punishment in the late 1970s.
In 2016, voters were given the option to take Newsom’s course. Proposition 62 would have repealed the death penalty and set life without parole as the maximum sentence. Voters rejected that measure by a 53 to 47 percent margin. In the same election, voters approved Proposition 66, to speed up death penalty cases by streamlining the process. The California Supreme Court upheld most of Prop. 66 as constitutional in August 2017.
Newsom’s controversial move gives Republicans an opening to charge that the Governor lied to voters. Though he opposed Prop. 66, he told the Modesto Bee in 2016 that, “I would be accountable to the will of the voters. I would not (put) 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.”
There’s no way to spin it – his executive actions do put his personal opinions in the way of where California voters wanted to go on the death penalty. Perhaps it finally gives the GOP a relevant, high-profile issue to show that they stand with voters and Newsom does not.
Newsom argued in his statement that, “the death penalty is inconsistent with our bedrock values and strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a Californian.”
Tell that to loved ones of the victims who suffered so greatly at the hands of the 743 heinous criminals whose lives were spared by Newsom despite committing some of the most brutal crimes imaginable.
They’re wondering whether justice for crime victims and their families is a “bedrock value”. In Gavin Newsom’s California, apparently not.
Tim Anaya is communications director for the Pacific Research Institute.