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Just recently, Governor Gavin Newsom stated his intention to sign an executive order granting a reprieve to all 737 death row inmates in California—home to the largest death row population in the Western Hemisphere. This is especially staggering as it is twice the size of Florida’s, the next largest population.
It should be noted, however, that nobody has been executed in California for over a decade, whereas in Texas—which has the third-largest death row population—there have been over 100 executions in the same period of time. In fact, more California death row inmates have committed suicide than have been executed since the state reinstated capital punishment in 1978.
Gov. Newsom’s stance on the death penalty is by no means unique or new. In fact, other governors have instituted moratoriums for many years. In 2014, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee froze the implementation of the death penalty, and this decision was reinforced in a 2018 Washington Supreme Court ruling that judged the punishment as “arbitrary” and “racially biased.”
This language was very similar to language Justice Stephen Breyer used in his 2015 Boyer v. Davis dissent (citing back to Glossip v. Gross, in which he wrote another dissenting opinion). In that dissent, Justice Breyer wrote that California’s administration of the death penalty, specifically, embodies three foundational flaws in the sentence’s implementation: “(1) serious unreliability, (2) arbitrariness in application, and (3) unconscionably long delays that undermine the death penalty’s penological purpose.”
The “unconscionably long delays” are well-known to California death row inmates. In 2006, for instance, a California man named Clarence Ray Allen was put to death after serving thirty-three years on death row. This also took place after Allen had suffered a heart attack in 2005 and been diagnosed with advanced type 2 diabetes. Regardless of whether one believes in the inherent justifiability of the death penalty, it is abundantly clear that this at the very least calls into question the argument that the death penalty is used to kill those who are “dangers to society.”
Still, Gov. Newsom’s executive order is a positive step, and his comments are encouraging. In his statement, he described the death penalty as “a failure,” and acknowledged that it “has discriminated against defendants who are mentally ill, black and brown, or can’t afford expensive legal representation.” Furthermore, other politicians have stated their intention to put another repeal measure on the 2020 ballot. We will have to wait until then to see if California voters agree with their governor’s recently voiced sentiments.
(To clarify: a reprieve does not mean that the sentences have been lifted, only that executions are on hold as long as Gov. Newsom holds office. A future governor would still be able to reinstate capital punishment. Pardons or commutations require approval from the state Supreme Court.)
Note: California Civil Rights Law Group is a leading discrimination law firm with offices in San Francisco, Oakland, and Marin County. If you think you may be the victim of discrimination, reach out to a discrimination or civil rights attorney for a consultation today.