The apparatus of death is being dismantled in California, and hundreds of inmates slated for execution have been granted reprieves. But whether this is anything more than a pause in the insanity of our state’s death penalty system will be up to us.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s bold move to defang the death penalty was a shot across the bow in a state that is deeply divided over capital punishment.
He couched it in personal and principled terms: “The intentional killing of another person is wrong. And as governor, I will not oversee the execution of any individual.”
But for the moratorium to outlast his tenure as governor, he’ll ultimately have to sell voters on both its philosophical and practical dimensions: Capital punishment is a moral abomination. And our particular death penalty system is a colossal boondoggle that wastes billions of dollars and doesn’t make us any safer.
Since reinstating the death penalty in 1978, California taxpayers have spent roughly $4 billion to fund a death penalty system that has carried out only 13 executions, according to a 2011 review of the process. We have the largest death row in the nation, with 737 condemned prisoners, but our execution chamber hasn’t been used since 2006.
The entire process has become such a charade that convicted killers have actually asked juries to sentence them to death instead of life: the cells are bigger, the privileges deemed better and death row prisoners are more likely to die of old age than to be executed.
Only the high court or California voters can end capital punishment permanently in the state. A northern California Assemblyman last week proposed a constitutional amendment banning the death penalty that could go before voters as early as next year.
But that’s an uncertain proposition. In recent years, Californians have twice rejected, by narrow margins, initiatives to repeal the death penalty. In 2016, voters opted instead to speed up the process from sentencing to death, giving prisoners no more than five years to wrap up their legal appeals.
The state Supreme Court ultimately watered down that initiative, ruling that mandating such a strict timeline would “undermine the courts’ authority.” Its new language says only that death row appeals be handled “as expeditiously as is consistent with the fair and principled administration of justice.”
California’s multiayered death penalty review — which exists to ensure that fair and principled administration of justice — is anything but expeditious.
The shortage of attorneys equipped to handle capital case appeals is so extreme, it can take 10 years for an inmate to be matched with a lawyer to begin the legal review process, and decades more for the courts to consider every avenue of appeal.
Four years ago, a federal judge in Orange County declared the state’s system so capricious and dysfunctional that it violates the U.S. constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
The death sentence so “carefully and deliberately imposed by the jury has been quietly transformed into one no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: life in prison, with the remote possibility of death,” Judge Cormac J. Carney wrote in 2014, as he overturned the death sentence of a man who’d been awaiting execution for nearly 20 years.
A state appellate panel nullified Carney’s decision, but agreed that the system is so riddled with delays that the death penalty has been stripped “of any deterrent or retributive effect it might once have had.”
But the lengthy appeals process itself is not the problem. It’s a moral necessity in a crowded criminal justice system that puts life-and-death judgments in the hands of fallible human beings, especially when that system is tilted against the poor and tainted by racial bias.
The answer is not to make the execution process more efficient, but rather to recognize its flaws and rethink what purpose it serves. It’s time we reckon with the immorality of government being in the business of killing people.
Enthusiasm for state-sanctioned execution is waning around the country. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have already outlawed capital punishment. Newsom is the fifth governor to translate his objections into an order that, at least temporarily, shuts the process down.
His critics have blasted him for circumventing the will of California voters. Cynics see his action as grandstanding, a flashy but meaningless political maneuver. And those who’ve lost loved ones to killers on death row consider Newsom callous, blind to the feelings of families of murder victims.
But his sincerity is clear and his reasoning sound. He has publicly acknowledged his reservations for years. And last week he put into words what many of us feel: the death penalty is “ineffective, irreversible and immoral,” an affront to our values and our aspirations.
It’s hard to know what the long-term fallout from his order will be. But I’m grateful that Gavin Newsom’s passion has put doing away with the death penalty back on our public agenda.