Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order Wednesday granting reprieve to all 737 people on California’s death row, effectively shelving capital punishment in the state until he is out of office.
While Newsom makes passionate arguments against the death penalty, the unilateral action he took was wrong in light of Proposition 66’s approval by a majority of voters in 2016. That proposition called on the state to speed up the process for executions to once again make the death penalty a real punishment in California’s judicial system. It was approved 10 years after a 2006 measure to end the death penalty was rejected by voters.
A better approach by the governor would have been for him to champion a new ballot initiative to end capital punishment. He would have had ample time and ability to make his case as spokesman for the campaign, and the voters could have had their chance to weigh in on what is one of the most important matters for any electorate to decide.
The governor’s decision hits home in Merced County. Cuitlahuac Tahua “Tao” Rivera is on death row for the 2004 shooting death of Merced police Officer Stephan Gray. A gang member, Rivera shot Gray after the officer pulled him over for a traffic stop on Glen Avenue. Gray was the first Merced officer murdered in the line of duty. With help of another man, Rivera managed to evade police during a manhunt in the weeks following the slaying.
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The last person put to death in California was Clarence Ray Allen. He died by lethal injection in 2006. Allen, already serving a life sentence for murder, was later convicted of ordering the murders of three people who were killed in a 1980 robbery of Fran’s Market in Fresno.
Newsom has been a longtime foe of the death penalty. But in 2016, when campaigning against Proposition 66, he told The Modesto Bee’s editorial board that he would be “accountable to the will of the voters.” Proposition 66 passed with 51 percent of the vote.
Now, however, Newsom says that having the state execute death-row inmates is wrong, and he will not oversee such a punishment. Last month Newsom told reporters that he “never believed in the death penalty from a moral perspective.” And he pointed out that 164 people have been freed from death row after they were found to have been wrongly convicted.
On Wednesday he also said the death penalty system has discriminated against mentally ill defendants and people of color, has not made the state safer and has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars.
There is no question the process has flaws. Wrongful convictions have occurred. But the family and friends of victims of rightfully convicted murderers have not received justice. Executions since 2006 have been caught up in legal challenges to the state’s execution protocol.
Fresno County District Attorney Lisa A. Smittcamp criticized the governor’s action as wrongly considered. “This unilateral action ignores the repeated and clearly expressed will of the voters of the state of California, ignores the laws that were/are in place at the time of the convictions, and turns a deaf ear to the families of the murdered victims,” she said in a statement to The Bee.
“The governor’s claims of a racist system are a slap in the face to the hard-working jurors and judges who heard the evidence, considered the law and rendered a true and just verdict. It is notable that the governor and his predecessor have failed to name one murderer on Death Row who has been the victim of the type of discrimination he claims. A death penalty verdict must be reached not only by a fair and impartial jury of citizens, but then must also withstand the scrutiny of a Superior Court judge, the California Supreme Court, countless federal judges and ultimately the United States Supreme Court.”
California voters should once again be able to make the decision on the value of the death penalty. As it is, Newsom acted by the power of edict. Who else does that? The current occupant of the White House, whom Newsom has roundly criticized for such a practice.