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Gavin Newsom to put moratorium on California death penalty

Gov. Gavin Newsom will sign an executive order Wednesday preventing executions in California while he’s in office and giving a reprieve to the 737 people on the state’s death row, according to an administration source.
The order also will withdraw California’s new lethal injection protocol and immediately close the execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison, the source said.
But Newsom isn’t planning to immediately commute the sentences of any inmates, which would take them off death row permanently. Instead, he’s putting in place a moratorium that could be reversed by a future governor once he leaves office.
“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 plans to say in prepared remarks obtained by the Bay Area News Group. “In short, the death penalty is inconsistent with our bedrock values and strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a Californian.”
Newsom’s move will immediately reignite the long-running debate over capital punishment in California, which currently has more people on death row than any other state and accounts for one fourth of the death row inmates in the nation.
California hasn’t executed an inmate since convicted triple murderer Clarence Allen in 2006 amid legal challenges to its lethal injection method. But in 2016, voters narrowly approved an initiative to speed up executions and rejected one that would have ended the practice. Newsom was one of the few major California officials to support the repeal proposition.
Twenty-five condemned inmates in California have exhausted all of their appeals and could be scheduled for execution soon without a reprieve from the governor. A judge currently is reviewing the state’s new lethal injection protocol, and if that protocol is approved, it would remove one of the last remaining barriers to an execution taking place.
Criminal justice reformers argue that there’s a mountain of evidence that capital punishment is unequally applied based on race and does little to make the general public safer. They point out that dozens of former death row inmates have been exonerated around the country, including Vicente Benavides Figueroa, 68, in California in April.
“This is going to be a significant leap forward for the movement to end the death penalty,” said Natasha Minsker, a lawyer who worked on capital punishment issues in California for more than a decade at the ACLU. “The death penalty in California is fundamentally unjust and unfair, and it’s bold leadership for Gavin Newsom not to just recognize that but to act on it.”
But Newsom’s moratorium is sure to invite a vitriolic response from proponents of the death penalty and some of the families of murder victims in the state.
Some of the most notorious Bay Area inmates on death row include Rodrigo Ortiz Paniagua, who was convicted of killing his pregnant girlfriend and their two daughters in Santa Clara County in 2005; Joseph Naso, a serial killer who murdered six women across northern California over a two-decade span; and Richard Allen Davis, whose death sentence for the 1996 kidnapping-murder of Petaluma 12-year-old Polly Klaas helped inspire the state’s three-strikes law.
Death penalty supporters have warned in recent months that any move to block executions would fly in the face of voters’ decision just over two years ago.
“The arguments were fully and vigorously presented, and the people made their choice,” Kent Scheidegger, the legal director for the pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation wrote in a December blog post . “They chose to mend it, not end it.”
Newsom’s decision could also return the debate over capital punishment to the national political stage. President Trump has escalated his Twitter jabs at Newsom in recent months and has professed his support for the death penalty.
California presidential hopeful Sen. Kamala Harris also opposes the death penalty and already has faced questions about her stances on the issue as state attorney general.
Democratic governors in three other states — Oregon, Colorado and Pennsylvania — have enacted similar moratoriums on the death penalty in recent years. Washington governor and presidential candidate Jay Inslee also halted capital punishment in his state in 2014, but the state Supreme Court more recently invalidated Washington’s death penalty altogether.
The newly elected Republican governor of Ohio, Mike DeWine, has also repeatedly delayed several executions this year as his state tries to reform its lethal injection system.
Newsom’s expected order recalls his decision just a few weeks into his first term as mayor of San Francisco in 2004 to grant marriage licenses for same-sex couples — a dramatic and sweeping move that won him national attention but was ultimately overturned in the courts.
This time, he appears to be on more solid legal ground: The California state constitution clearly allows governors to delay executions, Minsker said.
“There may be some legal challenges that continue, but Prop 66 is a statutory proposition, so that can’t trump the power of the governor under the constitution,” she said.
In the future, Newsom also could move to commute the sentences of some inmates from death to life in prison, changes that would be permanent and not subject to rollbacks by future governors. But the State Supreme Court must approve any commutation for an inmate with two or more felony convictions, which include about half of California’s death row population.
During his gubernatorial campaign, Newsom said he hoped to eventually put a death penalty repeal before the voters again and predicted that they would vote to abolish it.
“We need to have a more sustainable conversation with the public, and I would like to lead that,” he said in an interview with the Bay Area News Group last year. “We haven’t had a governor, with respect, that’s led this conversation. There’s been a lot of timidity on the death penalty.”
Anti-death penalty advocates pushed Newsom’s predecessor, Gov. Jerry Brown, to make a move on the issue over the course of his eight years in the governor’s office. Brown protested outside the gates of San Quentin State Prison in his 20’s as an inmate went to the gas chamber — but he refused to offer any commutations or reprieves to death row inmates, and never had to preside over an execution. He didn’t take a position on the 2016 repeal initiative.
“We have been asking for a governor in California to show leadership on this issue for a long time,” Minsker said.

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