Gavin Newsom and the New Politics of the Death Penalty

The California governor’s reprieve for inmates on death row stands on a history of defiance that has indulged separatist, occasionally even secessionary, thinking in the state.

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…

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