California Governor Halts Death Penalty

*The Breakdown is The North Star’s daily analysis of an essential news story designed to provide historical context, go beyond the popular headlines, and offer a glimpse of where this story may be going next.

Key Facts: California Governor Gavin Newsom enacted an executive order on Wednesday to put a moratorium on the state’s death penalty, calling the practice “ineffective, irreversible, and immoral.”

Newsom offered a reprieve to 737 inmates on death row and added that the death penalty has discriminated against mentally ill defendants and people of color. He noted that the death penalty has cost billions of taxpayer dollars and has not made the state safer.

“I cannot sign off on executing hundreds and hundreds of human beings,” Newsom said, according to The Sacramento Bee. Speaking to crime victims, he said, “We owe you, and we need to do more and do better. But we cannot advance the death penalty in an effort to soften the blow of what happened.”

Newsom’s move has earned the praise of political figures including Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris, who tweeted, “The death penalty is immoral, discriminatory, ineffective, and proven to be unequally applied. I applaud Governor @GavinNewsom for his decision to put a moratorium on this deeply flawed system of capital punishment in California.” However, Harris defended the death penalty as the state’s attorney general.

President Donald Trump also weighed in. “Defying voters, the Governor of California will halt all death penalty executions of 737 stone cold killers,” he tweeted. “Friends and families of the always forgotten VICTIMS are not thrilled, and neither am I!” Historical Context: In 2016, California voters rejected a plan to end capital punishment and replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole. Instead, a measure to expedite executions was enacted, The Sacramento Bee reported. So far, 13 executions have taken place since the state re-established the death penalty in 1978. When the governor was 10 years old, he met a man who was wrongfully convicted of murder, prompting what he calls a 40-year journey to end injustice in the criminal system. “This is a journey that began with an introduction of an elderly man named Pete Pianezzi,” Newsom said after signing the executive order.

Newsom referred to the case of a man who was convicted and received two life sentences in 1937 for the double murder of a gambler and bystander in Los Angeles. More than four decades later, he was declared innocent when an informant confessed to Pianezzi being framed by the mafia. Pianezzi died in 1992 when he was 90.

Beneath the Surface: Newsom’s announcement angered some of the families of crime victims, as well as lawyers and prosecutors. “I'm disgusted by the justice system," said Maria Keever, whose 13-year-old son was murdered along with his 9-year-old friend by death row inmate Scott Erskine in 1993, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. “I’ve fought for 25 years for the death penalty, and for what? Nothing,” she added. “California just became a dictatorship today,” said Tami Alexander, wife of former NFL player Kermit Alexander. They are staunch supporters of the death penalty, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Californians still support capital punishment. A poll from Survey USA found that 60 percent of residents back the death penalty, while 26 percent expressed uncertainty. For now, the Golden State joins Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Oregon as the fourth state to establish a moratorium on the death penalty. Twenty states have abolished capital punishment entirely.

What’s Next: Assemblymember Marc Levine announced Wednesday the introduction of a constitutional amendment that would eliminate capital punishment if approved by Californians next year. The governor expressed his support should the legislator place it on a ballot.

Notwithstanding, the measure is likely to be challenged legally. Although the governor can grant reprieves, experts argue whether he could close the San Quentin State Prison death chamber and eliminate protocol for carrying out lethal injection executions.

About the Author

Robert Valencia is the breaking news editor for The North Star. His work as editor and reporter appeared on Newsweek, World Politics Review,, Public Radio International and The Miami Herald, among other outlets. He’s a frequent commentator on foreign affairs and U.S. politics on Al Jazeera English, CNN en Español, Univision, Telemundo, Voice of America, C-SPAN, Sirius XM and other media outlets across Latin America and the Caribbean.