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Saturday 19 October 2019

California governor plans to repeal capital punishment

Gavin Newsom has reprieved 737 inmates who will not be put to death while he is in office.

A chair is removed from the death penalty chamber at San Quentin State Prison (AP)
A chair is removed from the death penalty chamber at San Quentin State Prison (AP)

By Don Thompson, Associated Press

The Governor of California has not only put a moratorium on executions in the US state but has said he also may commute death sentences and is pushing to repeal capital punishment.

Gavin Newsom signed an executive order granting reprieves to all 737 condemned inmates on the US’s largest death row.

That means there will be no executions while he is governor.

He was backed by fellow Democratic politicians who introduced a ballot measure that would repeal the death penalty next year by putting the politically perilous issue before voters for the third time in eight years.

Voters supported capital punishment in 2012 and 2016, when they voted to speed up executions by shortening appeals.

“I cannot sign off on executing hundreds and hundreds of human beings, knowing, knowing, that among them will be innocent human beings,” Mr Newsom said, citing examples of condemned inmates who were ultimately exonerated.

California would have to execute one inmate each day for more than two years to empty death row, he noted.

Critics accused Mr Newsom of usurping voters’ will.

One Republican politician said Mr Newsom broke the trust of those who elected him in November, and a prominent victims’ rights law firm suggested a court challenge and possible competing ballot measure that would restrict governors’ rights to grant reprieves.

“Friends and families of the always forgotten victims are not thrilled, and neither am I!,” tweeted President Donald Trump.

Although California has executed no one since 2006, Mr Newsom said he acted as executions potentially neared for 25 inmates who have exhausted their appeals and as court challenges to the state’s new lethal injection process potentially neared their end.

He rescinded those execution regulations and shut down the state’s never-used 853,000 US dollar execution chamber.

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Death penalty chamber chairs are seen before their removal at San Quentin State Prison (California Department of Corrections/AP)

Prison officials symbolically removed execution equipment from the chamber, releasing photos and video as proof it was dismantled.

Mr Newsom defended his decision in intensely personal terms.

“It’s a very emotional place that I stand,” he said.

“This is about who I am as a human being, this is about what I can or cannot do.

“To me this is the right thing to do.”

He said he is considering commuting death sentences as “a next step” once state Supreme Court justices explain why they blocked 10 non-death commutations sought by former governor Jerry Brown last year.

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A closed sign is placed on the door leading to the gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison (California Department of Corrections/AP)

A California governor needs Supreme Court approval to pardon or commute the sentence of anyone twice convicted of a felony, a restriction that applies to more than half of condemned inmates.

Democratic Assemblyman Marc Levine is counting on Mr Newsom to transform voters’ long-running support for the death penalty.

Mr Levine said he drove by San Quentin State Prison’s death row on his way to Sacramento, thinking: “This is a new day for California, a new day for justice.”

But while six senators and 17 assembly members are supporting Mr Levine’s proposed constitutional ban on executions, that’s a long way from the 27 Senate and 54 Assembly votes required to put the measure on the 2020 ballot.

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The death penalty chamber is seen after a pair of chairs were removed at San Quentin State Prison (California Department of Corrections/AP)

Republican Assemblyman Tom Lackey, a former highway patrolman, accused Mr Newsom of going back on his word to voters not to interfere with executions.

But Mr Newsom said his opposition has long been well known.

He said he has had tough meetings with dozens of victims’ families, including a dozen or so in the last week.

“To the victims all I can say is we owe you, and we need to do more and do better,” he said.

“But we cannot advance the death penalty in effort to try to soften the blow of what happened.”

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