Due to legal challenges, no one has been executed in California since 2006. But after two ballot initiatives to end the death penalty failed to garner enough votes, Gov. Gavin Newsom is taking it upon himself to end it.
According to sources who fed the news to the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle late Tuesday, Newsom is expected to make the big announcement Wednesday morning, using an executive order to put a moratorium on the death penalty at least throughout his administration.
The order also shuts down the execution chamber at San Quentin prison, which has not been used since 2013.
"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 said in a statement. "The death penalty is inconsistent with our bedrock values and strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a Californian."
Newsom argues that the death penalty is costly, and that it is disproportionately used in cases involving people of color, and inmates with mental impairments.
The Times points out that this is classic Newsom: latching on to a major cause of national significance early in his tenure in order to attract national headlines. It's the same tactic he used in legalizing gay marriage in the city of San Francisco in 2004, singlehandedly (some would say) setting in motion a set of legal challenges and the Prop. 8 backlash that led to the historic Supreme Court decisions in 2013 and 2015 legalizing same-sex marriage.
But supporters of capital punishment — much like opponents of same-sex marriage a decade and a half ago — are saying that Newsom has overstepped and that he's working against the will of the people. "Voters have had multiple opportunities in California over three decades to abandon the death penalty and they’ve shut them down at every chance," says pro-death penalty advocate Michael D. Rushford of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, speaking to the Times.
KQED's California Report says that political fallout is "likely" from Newsom's executive order. Death penalty advocates and people whose lives have been touched by the actions of inmates on death row are likely to launch legal challenges to Newsom's order, and as KQED suggests, this should spark some more "robust debate" on the issue.
Voters in California last voted to uphold the death penalty in 2016 when offered two conflicting ballot measures — Props 62 and 66, the former to repeal the death penalty, and the latter to speed up executions. Prop. 66, which limited the length of time for legal challenges to a death penalty conviction to five years, passed with 51% of the vote.