California Governor Gavin Newsom Halts Death Penalty on Basis of Morality and Risk of False Convictions

California Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order on Wednesday that halts the execution of inmates on death row, giving over 700 convicted felons a reprieve from their sentences for the time being. “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,” he said in a statement.

He issued the moratorium on capital punishment despite voters’ 2016 decision to not abolish the death penalty in the state. An organization that supports the state’s death penalty pointed out to the New York Times that this wasn’t the first rejection by California residents. “Voters have had multiple opportunities in California over three decades to abandon the death penalty and they’ve shut them down at every chance.” While state legislators have the authority to halt executions, the death penalty can only be abolished at the ballot box.

Newsom has previously cited his religious upbringing as a reason for why he opposes the death penalty, considering it immoral, but politically he has acknowledged that capital punishment disproportionally affects “defendants who are mentally ill, black and brown, or can’t afford expensive legal representation.” Newsom told the San Francisco Chronicle that a majority of death row inmates are black or Latino, and that people are more likely to be sentenced to death when the victims is white rather than a person of color. With capital punishment, there is also the very real risk that a death row inmate will be executed for a crime they did not commit, which weighed most heavily in Newsom’s decision.

Organizations like the Innocence Project have been working to exonerate death row inmates through DNA testing and other reforms that prevent wrongful convictions. Through their work and the work of other advocates, over 150 victims of wrongful convictions have been freed from death row, to date. A report from 2014 estimated, conservatively, that just over four percent of people awaiting execution are in fact innocent, and that only about half of them will be released from their death sentence. “False convictions … are extremely difficult to detect after the fact,” wrote the authors of the study. “

As a result, the great majority of innocent defendants remain undetected.” Despite this fatal travesty, 54 percent of Americans are in favor of the death penalty for people convicted of murder. Capital punishment has been abolished in 18 states so far, as well as the District of Columbia.

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