Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement on Wednesday that he would impose a moratorium on the execution of the death penalty in California for the 737 prisoners on death row sparked a political storm. Few problems have a more primitive quality than the death penalty. Many passionately believe that it is a moral abomination to take the lives of others under all circumstances. Many passionately believe that depraved criminal acts deserve the ultimate punishment.
Those with the first view will see Newsom’s decision as a noble statement of principle – backed up by hard and uncomfortable facts. Yes, the death penalty is inflicted disproportionately on minorities and the poor. Yes, some of the defendants facing the death penalty had poor or worse legal representation. Yes, Project Innocence used DNA evidence to prove that wrongful convictions are more common than authorities would ever admit. Yes, the death penalty has been rejected as barbaric by most first world nations – and it is expensive.
But in 2012, state voters rejected Proposition 34, which would have ended the death penalty. In 2016, state voters not only rejected Proposition 62 – which would have ended the death penalty – they approved Proposition 66 – which aimed to streamline death penalty calls and encourage a revival. executions that ended in 2006 when a federal judge ruled that the state’s use of a combination of three drugs to kill convicts was cruel and unusual punishment and therefore unconstitutional. The three votes were close, but the “will” of the voters was clear. And when asked about the death penalty last year in his campaign, Newsom said he would be “responsible for the will of the voters” while an aide said he would “respect the will of the electorate”.
Newsom on Wednesday admitted to saying he would take voters into account, but said he had made clear his firm opposition to the death penalty. And he said that while he wondered whether he should support the state’s current lethal injection protocol, the question of whether he could tolerate the killing of anyone – potentially hundreds – is moved from an “abstract” question to a “very real” question. “I don’t know about you, but I can’t sign my name on it,” he said.
It is a complex emotional problem. While the governor has said he is within his rights to declare a moratorium, his bold action will certainly lead to legal action, and further steps to vote for and against the death penalty will certainly follow. But those who are upset with Newsom will probably never be satisfied. Whether it’s finding a legal enforcement process or providing the funds to make Proposition 66 work, Democratic governors and lawmakers have shown by their inaction that they view capital punishment as an anachronism.
This institutional opposition subverts direct democracy. But at least Newsom is clear on his intentions, unlike his predecessor Jerry Brown. And if millions of Californians disagree, they can use their votes in the next election to try to make things happen.
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