California's suspension of death penalty doesn't indicate a trend: Expert

The state has executed 13 people since 1976.

March 13, 2019, 4:57 PM

There are 737 prisoners in California whose executions are now paused after the governor issued a moratorium on the state's death penalty policy, but that doesn't mean anything will change for good — in the state or the country.

Gov. Gavin Newsom's decision to issue an executive order to halt all executions in the state fits within his purview as the state's leader, but it doesn't change the law.

Newsom, a Democrat who was sworn into office earlier this year, acknowledged that while the order is just one step in the right direction, he is optimistic about the law changing to permanently ban the death penalty in the state some day.

"I am hopeful that, that will one day occur," Newsom said Wednesday.

Flanked by lawmakers, Gov. Gavin Newsom discusses his decision to place a moratorium on the death penalty during a news conference, March 13, 2019, in Sacramento, Calif.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP

The moratorium comes after Californians voted against a repeal of the death penalty in 2016, which, at the time, Newsom told a local newspaper's editorial board that if he were elected governor that he would "be accountable to the will of the voters," according to The Sacramento Bee.

Critics, including The Association of Deputy District Attorneys for Los Angeles County (LA ADDA), found that discrepancy to be a sticking point with his new proposal.

Michele Hanisee, president of the LA ADDA, issued a statement Tuesday after Newsom's plan was announced, saying that he "is usurping the express will of California voters and substituting his personal preferences via this hasty and ill-considered moratorium on the death penalty."

States with the Death Penalty
ABC News, National Conference of State Legislatures

But, in the news conference immediately after signing the executive order Wednesday morning, Newsom said that the voters chose to put him in office knowing that he has long been opposed to the death penalty.

"The people of the state of California have entrusted me by their will and by constitutional right to do exactly what I'm doing," Newsom said Wednesday.

Since the law does not change as a result of Newsom's order, California remains as one of the 30 states that has the death penalty. That said, California now joins three other states — Oregon, Colorado and Pennsylvania — where governors have issued moratoriums on executions.

Prison staff remove the electric chair from San Quentin, March 13, 2019, after Gov. Gavin Newsom placed a moratorium on the death penalty.
Office of the Governor of California via Twitter

There are currently 20 states and the District of Columbia that do not have the death penalty in their penal codes.

Evan Mandery, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said that the governor's change shouldn't be seen as a bellwether for the country at large.

"California is a really odd outlier on the death penalty. California has historically been a massive producer of death sentences, but very rarely executes anyone," said Mandery, who has written several books on the death penalty. "The death penalty will end in the United States. It's just a matter of when."

California has executed 13 people since the death penalty was reenacted in 1976, though they have more than double the amount of prisoners on death row than any other state.

"Executions have dropped dramatically over the past decade, the trend in state legislatures has been to reject capital punishment and public opinion has slowly, but surely been turning against the death penalty," said Mandery.

According to the non-profit Death Penalty Information Center, the state's 13 executions ranks as the 17th deadliest state. Texas is the highest on the list, with 560 executions since the law was re-instated. That's more than four times the amount of the second-deadliest state, Virginia, where there were 113 executions, or the third-deadliest, which is Oklahoma with 112 executions.

Mandery added that rather than discussing the issue of the death penalty in America, he said that the numbers essentially suggest that "it's just the death penalty in the south."

A condemned inmate is led out of his east block cell on death row at San Quentin State Prison, Aug. 16, 2016, in San Quentin, Calif.
Eric Risberg/AP

"The question is how it ends, and Texas will need to be dragged kicking and screaming into modern times and it may take the Supreme Court to do that. And if the Supreme Court doesn't do it, it may take 50 years for it to end," he said.

As for what the California moratorium means, Mandery didn't put much weight behind the move.

"I don't think it's a harbinger of anything that matters because California is such an outlier and the places that need to change are all in the deep south," Mandery said.

"The governor of Texas isn't issuing a moratorium anytime soon," he said.