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California Gov. Gavin Newsom is halting the state’s death penalty

The executive order will spare the lives of the 737 inmates currently on death row.

Gov. Gavin Newsom is ending the death penalty in California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, the recently elected Democratic executive of America’s largest state, is ending the death penalty there for now, granting a reprieve to more than 700 people on death row.

Newsom is issuing Wednesday an executive order halting executions. There are 737 inmates currently on death row, according to the Sacramento Bee; some of them have been there for decades.

“Our death penalty system has been — by any measure — a failure,” Newsom said in announcing his decision. “The intentional killing of another person is wrong. And as governor, I will not oversee the execution of any individual.” He said executions wasted money, didn’t make residents safer, and discriminated against people with mental illness or people of color.

It’s been more than 10 years since California executed anyone because of ongoing legal challenges. But voters there actually just rejected a ballot initiative to end the death penalty and approved one to speed up executions instead. A future governor could presumably reverse Newsom’s edict, and death penalty supporters are already arguing his action is unlawful.

Newsom has long opposed the death penalty, also citing cases of wrongfully convicted people being put to death to explain his belief. An estimated 4 percent of people sentenced to death were innocent, researchers say. As Vox’s Dara Lind previously explained:

  • The United States has executed more than 1,400 people since the 1970s
  • But executions have fallen considerably since the 1990s
  • And more states have banned the death penalty over the past decade

Under Newsom’s order, California joins 19 other states in refusing to carry out capital punishment.

National Conference of State Legislatures

But the death penalty does remain popular with many Americans, particularly whites. President Donald Trump has casually flirted with the idea of executing drug dealers as one way to respond to the opioid overdose crisis. He has spoken fondly of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, under whom drug dealers have been killed as a matter of policy.

Polling also shows many of those people back it because they believe in “eye for an eye” justice or because it “fits the crime.” Those racial disparities have a real effect on cases too, as Lind reviewed:

There’s a big gap in support by race. A Pew Research Center study from March 2014 found that white support for the death penalty was 8 percentage points higher than the average for all Americans (which they measured at 55 percent) — and black support was 8 points lower. That poll found that a minority of African Americans supported the death penalty.

This matters because if you believe the death penalty is never appropriate, you can’t be seated on a jury in a case where someone might be sentenced to death. That’s one of many factors that make it extremely hard for African Americans to get onto juries in capital cases, even though African Americans are often the ones on trial.

In addition to implicit bias, arguments about the death penalty’s racial skew don’t work because support for the death penalty is largely rooted in a moral demand for punishment — not in the facts about how well it works and what it costs.

Newsom noted more than half of those on California’s death row are people of color, calling it fundamentally unfair, and pointed out that five people sentenced to death in the state had later been exonerated.

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