© 2024 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

California Kills The Death Penalty — For Now. What Is Its Future?

A pair of death penalty chamber chairs are seen before their removal at San Quentin State Prison, in San Quentin, Calif. (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation via AP)
A pair of death penalty chamber chairs are seen before their removal at San Quentin State Prison, in San Quentin, Calif. (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation via AP)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

California Gov. Gavin Newsom halts the death penalty in his state and takes his case to the national stage. We unpack the politics and public opinion.

Want more from the show? You can get messages right from our hosts (and more opportunities to engage with the show) sent directly to your inbox with the On Point newsletter. Subscribe here.


Marisa Lagos, politics correspondent for KQED and cohost of the Political Breakdown podcast. ( @mlagos)

Phyllis Loya, opponent of Gov. Newsom’s decision. Her son — Pittsburg, California, police officer Larry Lasater — was killed in the line of duty in 2005. His killer is on California’s death row.

Jordan Steiker, law professor, University of Texas at Austin, where he teaches classes on constitutional, criminal and death penalty law. Co-director of the law school’s Capital Punishment Center. Co-author of “ Courting Death: The Supreme Court and Capital Punishment.” ( @UTexasLaw)

Cassandra Stubbs, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project. ( @CassyStubbsNC)

From The Reading List

KQED: “ Newsom Halts Executions, Opponents Call Move an Abuse of Power” — “Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order Wednesday halting executions in California, saying that the death penalty has been a costly failure that is unfairly applied to people of color and the mentally disabled.

“The order grants a reprieve to the 737 inmates on California’s death row, a move that seems likely to end the prospect of any executions during Newsom’s term, but would allow the next governor to resume capital punishment. He also ordered the closure of the execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison and withdrew the lethal injection protocol — the legal regulatory framework setting out how to put a prisoner to death in California.

“California hasn’t carried out an execution in 13 years, but is close to resuming them. Twenty-five people on death row have exhausted their appeals, Newsom repeatedly said.”

The Atlantic: “ Will the U.S. Finally End the Death Penalty?” — “The American death penalty is extraordinarily fragile, with death sentences and executions on the decline. Public support for the death penalty has diminished. The practice is increasingly marginalized around the world. California, with its disproportionately large share of American death-row inmates, announces an end to the death penalty. The year? 1972. That’s when the California Supreme Court declared the death penalty inconsistent with the state’s constitutional prohibition of cruel or unusual punishments—only to have the death penalty restored a year later through popular initiative and legislation.

“On Wednesday, again, California walked back its commitment to the death penalty. Though it’s not full-fledged abolition, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a moratorium on capital punishment lasting as long as his tenure in office, insisting that the California death penalty has been an ‘abject failure’ in its discriminatory, ineffective, and inaccurate application. He also declared that the death penalty itself is an immoral practice.

“Is this latest development in California, like the California Supreme Court’s decision in 1972, just a small roadblock to the continued use of capital punishment? Or is it a harbinger of further decline and perhaps even abolition of the American death penalty? We think the latter.”

New Yorker: “ Gavin Newsom and the New Politics of the Death Penalty” — “This week, Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, signed an executive order issuing a reprieve to all seven hundred and thirty-seven prisoners on the state’s death row, effectively nullifying California’s policy of capital punishment for the near future. The moratorium, which builds on Newsom’s record of death-penalty opposition, was acknowledged on both sides of the political aisle as a bold move: ‘an important day for justice,’ as Kamala Harris put it, or a declaration of ‘the terrible message that the taking of innocent life will not be punished to the fullest extent of the law,’ as Pat Bates, a Republican state senator from Orange County, said. Eventually, the President felt moved to address the issue. ‘Friends and families of the always forgotten VICTIMS are not thrilled, and neither am I!’ he tweeted. This aimless response, at once grousing and lukewarm, seemed its own testament to the order’s success.

“In truth, the boldness of Newsom’s reprieve may be a little overstated. California as a whole has voted against repealing the death penalty, most recently in 2016, when it favored a ballot measure to expedite the process, yet voting patterns show that metropolitan Californians, the core of the state’s blue electorate, decisively oppose it. Meanwhile, in the past two decades, support for capital punishment in murder convictions has collapsed nationwide, especially among Democrats, in line with broader trends. The Pope forbade the practice categorically last year. The European Union won’t admit death-penalty states—opposition was the first human-rights standard that its council adopted—and it prohibits the trade with other nations of goods involved in capital punishment. (The list includes guillotines, whips, ‘shields with metal spikes,’ and, more problematically for the United States, lethal-injection drugs.)

“Response to Newsom’s moratorium was mixed even among the families of victims. One mother of a murdered daughter reported being ‘pleased’; Marc Klaas, the father of a girl notoriously kidnapped from a slumber party and killed, in 1993, was much less so, describing the governor’s action as ‘Trumpian’ in its willingness to curb practice to one’s ‘own personal philosophy.’ There is truth to that claim. Newsom, in presenting his order, pointed to alarming inequities in the way that capital punishment is meted out. (The race of both perpetrators and victims has repeatedly been shown to correspond to the likelihood of a death sentence; an A.C.L.U. study of California found wide geographic variance in sentencing, suggesting that a convict’s fate may depend on the county where he or she happens to be tried.) But the governor also leaned heavily on the language of personal morality. ‘I will not oversee execution of any person,’ his order said. In a press conference, he elaborated, ‘This is about who I am as a human being. This is about what I can or cannot do.’ ”

Brian Hardzinski produced this hour for broadcast.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.