California Governor Uses Clemency Power to Halt Executions

On Wednesday, March 13th, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order placing a moratorium on executions in the state, granting a reprieve for all 737 death row prisoners – 25 of whom have exhausted all their appeals. The order also calls for withdrawing California’s lethal injection protocols and immediately closing the execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison. Gov. Newsom cited widespread discrimination against minorities and the mentally ill, and the large costs associated with retaining the death penalty, as the reasoning behind his decision.

“Our death penalty system has been, by all measures, a failure. 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. Most of all, the death penalty is absolute. It’s irreversible and irreparable in the event of human error.”

California Governor Gavin Newsom

During a press conference that followed his signing of the order, Gov. Newsom repeatedly noted that the California State Constitution grants him the power to issue the reprieve. He also hinted at future action he might take to commute death sentences. The clemency power does not extend, however, to full repeal of capital punishment in the state, and Gov. Newsom’s action does not alter the current law which authorizes capital punishment for homicide crimes in California.

It also does not change the sentences of the hundreds of prisoners on death row in California, whose cases are likely to continue to move forward through the appellate process. Until and unless the law regarding capital punishment is altered, those cases will continue to require the substantial resources needed to provide adequate representation. Without legislative action, executions could resume after Gov. Newsom’s term in office expires, potentially at a faster pace than previously given the passage of California Proposition 66 in 2016. Prop 66 limited the time frame for appeals to just five years and enacted a number of other changes that caused bar leaders and others to express serious concern about due process and fairness in California capital cases.

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Clemency in California