'Ineffective, irreversible and immoral': California governor halts death penalty
By Sim Sim Wissgott

California's governor put a halt to death sentences in his state on Wednesday, sparking a renewed debate in the U.S. over the government's right to kill and the risks of executing innocent men and women.

Governor Gavin Newsom announced he was imposing a moratorium on the death penalty in California, telling a press conference in Sacramento, "Do we have the right to kill?... I don't believe we do."

California is the U.S. state with the largest number of people on death row – twice as many as second-placed Florida – although it has not carried out an execution since 2006.

For the 737 people on death row, the moratorium will not mean an end to their incarceration, Newsom made clear. "We will reprieve those on death row; we are not commuting the sentences."

'I won't be able to sleep'

Describing capital punishment as "premeditated state-sponsored executions," Newsom, who was sworn in as governor in January, cited statistics that estimated as many as one in 25 inmates on death row was innocent.

Handout photo provided by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation showing staff members dismantling the death row gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison, March 13, 2019. /VCG Photo

Handout photo provided by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation showing staff members dismantling the death row gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison, March 13, 2019. /VCG Photo

As recently as last year, a man was exonerated and released from prison after spending 26 years on death row, he noted.

"I can't sign my name to that… I won't be able to sleep at night," Newsom, who as governor would be required to sign the death warrants, concluded.

Shortly after Newsom's press conference, the official Twitter account of the governor's office announced that the death chamber at San Quentin prison – California's only death row for male inmates – had been dismantled and shut down.

Defying voters

Although the state is well known for its liberal views, the governor's move goes against the wishes of Californian voters who have repeatedly voted against abolishing the death penalty.

In 2016, they even passed a bill that would speed up the executions process.

California Governor Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference in Sacramento, California, March 13, 2019. /VCG Photo

California Governor Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference in Sacramento, California, March 13, 2019. /VCG Photo

President Donald Trump quickly condemned the decision on Wednesday, tweeting: "Defying voters, the Governor of California will halt all death penalty executions of 737 stone cold killers. Friends and families of the always forgotten VICTIMS are not thrilled, and neither am I!"

Democrats in the Senate and House of Representatives however applauded Newsom's "courageous decision," while the California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called it a "watershed moment in the fight for racial equity and equal justice for all."

'Tide is turning'

Capital punishment still exists in 30 out of 50 U.S. states, although nine of those have not carried out an execution in 10 years or more, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Last year, 25 inmates were executed in eight states – more than half of them from Texas. The total number of executions has, however, fallen steadily since 1999. 

Meanwhile, over 160 people have been exonerated since 1976 after being previously sentenced to death.

CGTN screenshot of the Twitter account of the California governor's office.

CGTN screenshot of the Twitter account of the California governor's office.

Opponents of capital punishment argue that the system is racially biased and overwhelmingly targets those who cannot afford proper legal defense.

"The death penalty has been an abject failure. It discriminates based on the color of your skin or how much money you make," Newsom tweeted following his announcement. "It's ineffective, irreversible, and immoral. It goes against the very values that we stand for – which is why CA (California) is putting a stop to this failed system." 

"The tide is turning against the death penalty," the ACLU noted Wednesday, pointing to Washington state's abolishment of capital punishment last year as well as similar moves currently underway in New Hampshire, Oregon, Colorado and Pennsylvania.

Newsom's moratorium does not amount to abolishing the death penalty, a move that can only be approved at the ballot box. But it will remain in place as long as he is governor. 

(Cover picture: A view of California's San Quentin State Prison, March 13, 2019. /VCG Photo)