Death Penalty in California Is a Puzzle for Gov. Gavin Newsom

He now faces renewed calls from abolition advocates to follow the example of Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon, who commuted the sentences of all 17 people on the state’s death row during her final weeks in office. And he’s clearly thinking about it.

“It’s more complicated in California, for many different reasons, but it’s something that’s long been considered,” the governor told reporters in Sacramento recently when asked about commuting sentences.

That’s true: Many of those on death row also have other felony convictions, so even if Newsom granted them clemency, the California Supreme Court would have to review each one. Issuing commutations in small batches could be a painstaking and legally risky process — and no less politically thorny than simply converting every death sentence to life in prison, as Oregon’s Brown did. For that reason, those pushing clemency are urging Newsom to go all the way, and sooner rather than later.

Cassandra Stubbs, the director of the Capital Punishment Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, said that activists were “thrilled” when Newsom announced his moratorium. “But,” she added, “of course that’s not enough.”

Abolitionists in California are willing to grant the governor space to think about it, however. A recent editorial in The Los Angeles Times on the death penalty made no specific demand of Newsom, and there’s little sign that he’s under real political pressure to act. With no executions happening, the issue is rarely in the news. Activists said they appreciated the incremental steps Newsom had taken, and offered to help find a path forward.

“There’s a lot of hope that he will move forward with universal clemency in his final term,” said Natasha Minsker, a death penalty opponent who advises Smart Justice California, an advocacy group. “We want to support him.”

As he weighs any future ambitions — and Newsom has said he has “subzero” interest in the presidency, despite some indications last year that he was contemplating the idea — he might be considering the fact that America’s national politics on capital punishment are still less forgiving than California’s.


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