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What Gavin Newsom's Moratorium on the Death Penalty Means for California's Death Row Inmates

The governor's moratorium affects 737 people—more than a quarter of the country's death row inmates.
California Governor Gavin Newsom announced a moratorium on the state's death penalty during a news conference at the California State Capitol on March 13th, 2019, in Sacramento, California.

California Governor Gavin Newsom announced a moratorium on the state's death penalty during a news conference at the California State Capitol on March 13th, 2019, in Sacramento, California.

On Wednesday morning, 737 people on death row in California learned that the state's governor will refuse to let the state kill them during his time in office. With an executive order, newly elected Governor Gavin Newsom placed a moratorium on the death penalty in the country's most populous state.

"Our death penalty system has been—by any measure—a failure," Newsom said in prepared remarks. "The intentional killing of another person is wrong. And as governor, I will not oversee the execution of any individual."

Because of California's large population and its prominence in national politics, some believe Newsom's decision could influence the broader national conversation on the death penalty. Since 1846, when Michigan became the first state to abolish the death penalty, 20 other states have followed suit, including Washington State just last year.

Here are some key takeaways from Newsom's executive order.

Newsom Has Neither Ended the Death Penalty Nor Saved Anyone From Death Row

As Newsom's predecessor, former California Governor Jerry Brown, finished his term, many advocates called on Brown to commute the sentences of the 737 prisoners on death row. Brown declined, in a move that some called a "political gift" to Newsom, giving the new governor an opportunity to take a stand on an issue that could give him national prominence.

But Newsom's executive order did not commute anyone's sentence: It simply placed a moratorium on the death penalty. All the prisoners on death row will still have the death sentence, and, if the moratorium were to be lifted (either by a new governor or even Newsom himself), the prisoners could still plausibly face the death penalty. (In California, the state Supreme Court must approve a governor's attempt to pardon or commute the sentence of anyone twice convicted of a felony.)

The Move Was Mostly Symbolic

Calling for a moratorium does not save anyone from imminent execution: The last time California executed a prisoner was in 2006, and, when Newsom signed the executive order on Wednesday, there were no executions scheduled anywhere in the state. Evidence has suggested that California's method of execution, lethal injection, can cause extreme pain to those being executed. Lawsuits challenging the method as cruel and unusual have effectively paused any executions in the state for the last 13 years.

California's Death Row Population Is the Largest in the Western Hemisphere

With 737 prisoners, California's death row population is larger than that of any country in the Western Hemisphere (besides, of course, the United States). California has twice as many death row inmates as Florida, the state with the next-highest number.

According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, there were 2,721 people on death row as of October of 2018. By halting the death penalty in California, Newsom's moratorium affects more than a quarter of the country's death row inmates.

Voters in California Have Recently Supported the Death Penalty

As recently as 2016, California voters indicated their support of the death penalty. That year, two different ballot measures regarding the death penalty went before voters: One that would have abolished the death penalty in the state, and one that would speed up the death penalty process by shortening the window for appeals. Voters rejected abolishing the death penalty, and passed the measure speeding up the process.

Soon after Newsom's executive order, President Donald Trump tweeted:

California has no clear consensus on the issue: In 2016, only about 53 percent of voters voted to keep the death penalty.

Sixty Percent of California's Death Row Inmates Are People of Color

In California, more than 60 percent of death row inmates are people of color, most of them black and Latinx men. Multiple studies have shown that people of color are more likely to be given the death penalty than white offenders charged with similar crimes.

In his statement explaining why he issued the moratorium, Newsom said that the death penalty has "discriminated against defendants who are mentally ill, black and brown, or can't afford expensive legal representation."

California senator and presidential hopeful Kamala Harris tweeted in support of Newsom's decision: "The death penalty is immoral, discriminatory, ineffective, and proven to be unequally applied."