Public Comment

Governor Newsom's Order to Halt Executions

Harry Brill
Monday March 18, 2019 - 04:03:00 PM

What a wonderful event for progressives to hear very good news on an important issue. In the last several years California voters have twice rejected measures to abolish capital punishment. Nevertheless, Newsom, who is Catholic, has not only employed his gubernatorial powers to halt executions, which applies while he remains governor. He has done so for the right reasons. Capital punishment is inhumane, discriminates against people of color, and those who are too poor to afford expensive legal representation.  

Because a public referendum supported the death penalty, Newsom's decision will probably be appealed, claiming that the governor has no authority to change the law. But so far, so good. 

Moreover, Newsom made the very obvious and important point that execution is irreversible. Five inmates since 1973 in California were freed from death row based on evidence that they were wrongly convicted or sentenced. Donald Heller, who wrote the initiative that expanded California's death penalty, acknowledged "if you have an imperfect system taking someone's life, it's a little bit frightening". Indeed, the result of wrong decisions is that the system is burying its mistakes. 

Actually, due to judicial intervention, there have been no executions since 2006, which is 13 years ago. The inmate was a 78 year old white man, who was legally blind, diabetic, and used a wheelchair. But the future was about to change. There are now 737 condemned inmates in the nations' largest death row. They include 24 inmates who have exhausted all legal appeals. if Newsom's decision is upheld, he would be saving many lives. 

As Newsom commented, most countries have either abolished capital punishment or are no longer using it. But the U.S., along with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and China, ranks among "the world's top executioners. 

However, stopping executions is not enough. It should be just the beginning of a progressive incarceration policy. Too many prisoners should not be in prison at all, either because they are innocent or they are serving long sentences for minor offenses. 

On this issue, Newsom so far is disappointing. He stressed that his order would not provide for the release of any inmates or alter their convictions or sentences. This is inconsistent with the decision he made. California's prisoners are disproportionately racial minorities, poor, and unable to able to afford costly legal representation. And too many who have been convicted for possessing and using drugs should be in rehabilitation programs, not in prison. It is incumbent on progressives to continue the struggle to demand and achieve a more civilized society for all, including those who are racial minorities, poor, or mentally ill, who certainly cannot defend themselves adequately. If not, we are a democracy in name only.