Should the death penalty be outlawed?

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Speed read

Who, when and where: California Gov. Gavin Newsom on March 13 issued an executive order that grants reprieves to 737 inmates on the state’s death row, the nation’s largest. Newsom doesn’t have the power to overturn California’s death penalty law, but the order prevents executions while he is governor.

What: While California has not executed anyone since 2006, Newsom said he acted because 25 inmates have exhausted their appeals. Prison officials symbolically removed equipment from the state’s never-used $853,000 execution chamber after the order.

The governor’s move has drawn a range of reactions, including from President Trump, who said he is “not thrilled.” Marc Klaas, whose 12-year-old daughter Polly was murdered in a well-known 1993 case, argued that Newsom was defending “the worst dregs of our society.” However, Aba Gayle, whose teen daughter Catherine Blount was killed in 1980, said, “An execution is a state-sanctioned, premeditated murder — don’t do that in my name, and definitely don’t do that in Catherine’s name.” Other critics say his move undermines the will of California voters.

Why: The governor defended his decision: “It’s a very emotional place that I stand. This is about who I am as a human being, this is about what I can or cannot do. To me, this is the right thing to do.” No death row inmates will be released, and Newsom said he has met with dozens of victims’ families. “To the victims, all I can say is we owe you, and we need to do more and do better. But we cannot advance the death penalty in an effort to try to soften the blow of what happened.”

What’s next: Along with the moratorium, Newsom said he is considering commuting death sentences. The governor needs state Supreme Court approval to pardon or commute the sentence of anyone twice convicted of a felony, a restriction that applies to more than half of condemned inmates. Fellow Democratic lawmakers introduced an amendment to repeal the death penalty, a move that could put the issue on the 2020 ballot.

While the governor has constitutional power to grant reprieves, opponents could mount a legal challenge to his action. And a future governor could reverse the moratorium.

Newsom faces backlash from some Republicans, law-enforcement groups and victims-rights organizations. The issue is politically charged, with California voters supporting capital punishment in 2012 and 2016, when they voted to shorten appeal time for executions. A new poll finds that most state residents still support the death penalty.


The death penalty is dysfunctional, barbaric and expensive, and Newsom’s moratorium is a cue that it should end.

“In due time, this growing chorus against a system of punishment that has been shown to be discriminatory, prone to error and ineffective as a crime-fighting tool should spell its demise once and for all.” — New York Times editorial board

Cheering progressives should remember death row is filled with killers, not martyrs.

“Remember the victims? They received only passing mention from the governor after he announced his reprieve and, quite frankly, this is a weakness in the progressive movement — the inability to acknowledge that some convicted death row inmates really are guilty, some really did commit heinous acts. Some really aren’t worthy of sanctification for the purposes of making anti-death penalty arguments.” — Marcos Breton, Sacramento Bee

Newsom is acting against California law …

“Section 1 of the ‘Executive’ article within the California constitution holds that ‘the Governor shall see that the law is faithfully executed.’ By issuing his order, Newsom is flatly refusing to do that, and in so doing he is engaging in precisely the sort of legal sophistry, political norm-breaking, and rank contempt for democracy (and juries) about which we are all supposed to be so alarmed. Irrespective of their views on the death penalty, those who cherish separation of powers and the rule of law should refuse to applaud this move.” — Charles C.W. Cooke, National Review

… And undermining the will of the state’s voters

“In California, the people have reserved a portion of the legislative power to themselves by direct vote, what we refer to as the initiative process. The people have voted on the capital punishment question 11 times since 1972. Every time they voted to retain, expand or expedite the death penalty. …The people of California already have considered the death penalty opponents’ arguments and rejected them. The governor should respect their decision and respect democracy.” – Kent Scheidegger, San Francisco Chronicle

Newsom’s moratorium follows Trump’s playbook.

“Just as Trump’s [national emergency] declaration jumps around congressional sentiment, Newsom has jumped around legislative action. … In some ways Newsom’s action is even more immoral than Trump’s. Newsom has just overruled the judicial will of 737 separate juries. An intrinsic principle of American governance is the insulation of the judiciary from executive diktat. Newsom has just shredded that principle, indiscriminately commuting hundreds of sentences.” – Tom Rogan, Washington Examiner

Newsom is doing the right thing and the rest of the nation should follow.

“In every way, this is the right choice for California — morally, strategically and economically. … Newsom has a history of stepping bravely ahead of public opinion when it’s the right thing to do. Certainly, the national trends are leading his way: Death sentences, on both the state and federal levels, are at historic lows, and 20 states have abolished the death penalty. It’s only a matter of time before the last person is executed in this country. Newsom is doing the just thing by pulling that moment closer.” — San Francisco Chronicle editorial board

“Admittedly, a governor announcing he will not enforce specific aspects of certain laws leads us into uncomfortable territory too. But Newsom has unlimited authority to grant reprieves to death row inmates, so he appears to be on solid ground here. It’s good that the governor has pulled the plug on executions, at least for the time being. Now we need to get on to the business of ending capital punishment — here and in every other state — once and for all.” — Los Angeles Times editorial board