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May 10, 2019

California Governor Announces Execution Moratorium; Orders Closure of Execution Chamber

Callie Heller, Staff Attorney

Calling capital punishment “inconsistent with our bedrock values,” on March 13, 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced an execution moratorium, signing an executive order. The order cited the numerous issues with the state’s death penalty, including the $5 billion spent to execute 13 people over four decades, wrongful convictions, and the overrepresentation of “people of color, people with mental disabilities, and people who cannot afford costly legal representation” on death row. Governor Newsom’s order unequivocally stated that he “will not oversee execution of any person while Governor," declaring that “our death penalty system has been — by any measure — a failure.” 

The order provided for a temporary reprieve for all 737 of the state’s death-sentenced prisoners (including the 25 who had exhausted their appeals and were execution-eligible), as well as the repeal of California’s lethal injection protocol, and the closure of the “death chamber” at San Quentin State Prison. The $853,000 execution chamber, built in 2008, has never been used; the last person executed in California was Clarence Ray Allen in 2006. A work crew set about dismantling the execution chamber almost immediately following the announcement.

“Our death penalty system has been — by any measure — a failure.”

Gavin Newsom

California Governor

Governor Newsom has said he will also grant reprieves to anyone sentenced to death while he is in office and is exploring what other actions he might take to halt capital punishment in the state. However, the governor’s March order did not change any existing death sentences, leaving open the possibility that executions will be carried out in the future. While it is possible that the governor could take more permanent action to commute some California death sentences to life in prison, his clemency power has an important limitation that does not exist in many other states:  California law requires the governor to obtain approval from the state’s highest court before pardoning or commuting the sentence of anyone twice convicted of a felony. That condition applies to more than half of California’s death row prisoners.

As such, while no California executions appear to be imminent, individuals on death row or facing capital charges remain vulnerable and in need of counsel to protect their rights and ensure due process. California has long lacked sufficient numbers of qualified attorneys who are able and willing to provide representation to the hundreds of prisoners facing a death sentence. As of 2016, there were 400 death row prisoners awaiting counsel for their appellate proceedings. Voters narrowly passed Proposition 66 in 2016, which was promoted as a way to speed up the death penalty appellate process by, among other things, requiring attorneys to accept capital appointments. California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu has noted, however, that the legislature has not provided additional resources to appoint qualified attorneys, leaving the system unworkable.