California suspends death penalty

Governor Gavin Newsom imposes moratorium on death penalty, granting a reprieve to 737 condemned inmates.

'Abject failure': California suspends death penalty
Newsom, a Democrat who took office in January, has been a staunch opponent of death penalty [File: Mike Blake/Reuters]

Governor Gavin Newsom has imposed a moratorium on carrying out the death penalty in California, granting a reprieve to 737 condemned inmates – the largest death row population in the United States.

“The death penalty has been an abject failure. It discriminates based on the colour of your skin or how much money you make,” he told a news conference on Wednesday.

“It’s ineffective, irreversible, and immoral. It goes against the very values that we stand for, which is why California is putting a stop to this failed system.”

Newsom also withdrew the lethal injection regulations that death penalty opponents already have tied up in courts and announced the closure of a new execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison that was never used.

Newsom, a Democrat who took office in January, has been a staunch opponent of the death penalty, last carried out in California in 2006.

Newsom said his views on the death penalty were first shaped 40 years ago when he learned of his grandfather’s and father’s advocacy for a wrongfully convicted man.

“I was a young man learning that life story,” he said after signing the order. “I’ve gotten a sense over a course of many, many years over the disparities in our criminal justice system.”

“It’s a very emotional place that I stand,” Newsom told reporters. “This is about who I am as a human being, this is about what I can or cannot do; to me, this was the right thing to do.

US President Donald Trump¬†denounced the decision and said it didn’t have the support of voters.

Claire Finkelstein from the University of Pennsylvania told Al Jazeera that the California governor acted on the basis of two concerns: racial disparity in the administration of the death penalty, and innocence.

“A study was done a number of years ago in Georgia, which showed that there was a very strong correlation between the race of the victim and discrimination, so that if you were black and your victim was white, you had up to 11 times greater chance of receiving death penalty than the other way around,” said Finkelstein.


Largest death row population

California has not executed anyone since 2006, when Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor. Though voters in 2016 narrowly approved a ballot measure to speed up the punishment, no condemned inmate faced imminent execution.

Since California’s last execution, its death row population has grown to house one of every four condemned inmates in the US.

Among the most notorious inmates is Lonnie David Franklin Jr, also known as the “Grim Sleeper,” who was sentenced to death for 10 murders between 1985 and 2007.

Others on death row are Scott Peterson, whose trial for killing his wife Laci riveted the country, and Richard Davis, who kidnapped 12-year-old Polly Klaas during a slumber party and strangled her.

US Senator Kamala Harris, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, applauded Newsom’s decision.

“As a career law enforcement official, I have opposed the death penalty because it is immoral, discriminatory, ineffective, and a gross misuse of taxpayer dollars,” she said in a statement.

While the governor’s move is certain to be challenged in court, aides say his power to grant reprieves is written into the state’s constitution.

Human Rights Watch said that, with the governor’s decision, California continues a trend in the US of moving away from putting people to death.

The state joins Colorado, Oregon, and Pennsylvania, which have similar bans, and 20 states that have abolished the death penalty, it said.

The politics of death row

SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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