California’s governor is expected to issue a moratorium on the death penalty Wednesday, effectively granting reprieve to the 737 inmates currently on the state’s death row.
California has not carried out an execution since 2006. Nonetheless, it also has the largest death row population in the country, and accounts for about a quarter of the nation’s death row population overall. California will join 20 other states plus Washington, D.C., that have either declared the death penalty illegal or issued moratoriums on it.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to halt the death penalty in California was first reported by NBC Los Angeles on Tuesday evening. Newsom, a Democrat who took office in January, released a statement Tuesday evening confirming the plans. “Our death penalty system has been – by any measure – a failure,” the statement said. “It has discriminated against defendants who are mentally ill, black and brown, or can’t afford expensive legal representation. It has provided no public safety benefit or value as a deterrent. It has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars. But most of all, the death penalty is absolute. Irreversible and irreparable in the event of human error.”
California has flirted with the premise of abolishing the death penalty for years. In 2016, a ballot measure to get rid of the death penalty was narrowly defeated by about 6 percent.
The news coincides with a broader national trend of declining execution rates and waning popular support for the death penalty, fueled in part by a nationwide shortage of lethal injection drugs. As a result of the shortage, some states began experimenting with cocktails of untested lethal injection drugs, which led to horrific accounts of botched executions and subsequent legal challenges. Last year, two death row inmates in Tennessee chose to be executed by electric chair, citing concerns about the state’s lethal injection protocol.
Death penalty abolition is also an issue that’s increasingly gained bipartisan support. This year has seen a number of Republican lawmakers in red states – including Wyoming, Virginia and Kentucky – back or introduce legislation to end capital punishment, citing religious reasons and the cost of keeping inmates on death row, despite executions grinding to a halt in most states.
Victims advocacy groups have played a significant role in keeping the death penalty alive. And on Wednesday morning, President Donald Trump accused Gov. Newsom of betraying families of victims. “Defying voters, the Governor of California will halt all death penalty executions of 737 stone cold killers,” Trump wrote. “Friends and families of the always forgotten VICTIMS are not thrilled, and neither am I!”
In 2018, just eight states carried out a total of 25 executions, 13 of which were in Texas, up slightly from 23 the previous year, but still near historically low levels.
Cover: In this Monday Feb. 11, 2019, file photo, Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom answers questions at a Capitol news conference, in Sacramento. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)