Gavin Newsom, the Democratic governor of California, announced a moratorium on the application of the death penalty in his state on March 12, a plan received warmly by Catholic leaders and denounced by President Trump on Twitter.
Mr. Newsom, a Catholic, remarked to the press that he decided to suspend executions when he realized “it’s not an abstract question any longer,” upon being elected governor last November. He said he “cannot sign off on executing hundreds and hundreds of human beings.”
“The intentional killing of another person is wrong and as governor, I will not oversee the execution of any individual,” Mr. Newsom said as he signed the executive order beginning the moratorium on executions on March 13. “Our death penalty system has been, by all measures, a failure. It has discriminated against defendants who are mentally ill, black and brown, or can’t afford expensive legal representation. It has provided no public safety benefit or value as a deterrent. It has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars. Most of all, the death penalty is absolute. It’s irreversible and irreparable in the event of human error.”
“The intentional killing of another person is wrong and as governor, I will not oversee the execution of any individual.”
“Today’s declaration is a bold step toward abolishing a broken system that fails to protect the inviolable dignity of the human person,” said Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, according to a statement from the Catholic Mobilizing Network. Ms. Murphy is the executive director of the organization, whose work is centered on restorative justice and anti-death-penalty advocacy.
Mr. Newsom’s office says that the state of California has the largest death row population in the Western Hemisphere, at 737 people, and that three other U.S. governors have suspended capital punishment through executive orders. California voters rejected an initiative to abolish the death penalty by a 54-46 margin in 2016 and also voted against a repeal in 2012. The state has not carried out an execution since 2006.
In August 2018, Pope Francis revised the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the death penalty to declare the practice “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”
Nationally, public support for the death penalty has declined sharply over the past two decades, leveling off at slightly more than 50 percent. Opposition more than doubled between 1996 and 2018, to just under 40 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.
“These trends, which span the judicial, legislative, and executive offices of states across the U.S., punctuate the long-term decline in support for capital punishment among the American public, and Catholics in particular,” the Catholic Mobilizing Network claimed in its public statement. (In 2018, however, the Pew Research Center reported that Catholics supported the death penalty at about the same rate as did the overall public.)
California archdioceses have also applauded Mr. Newsom’s announcement. Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles called the decision an important “first step.”
“We need to continue to address the inequities in our criminal justice system,” he said in a statement, “to improve conditions in our prisons, and to provide alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent crimes. We need to keep looking for new ways to rehabilitate offenders so they can be restored to society and lead productive and dignified lives.”
Democratic Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala D. Harris of California, both candidates in the upcoming 2020 presidential contest, each tweeted their praise for the decision.
Sister Helen Prejean, the anti-death-penalty activist and author of the book Dead Man Walking, was similarly pleased with the decision. “I’ve been flying in and out of California for 30-plus years to join with stalwart souls working to wake people up to the futility and horror of the death penalty,” she tweeted. “These dedicated abolitionists deserve much of the credit for this momentous announcement.”
Sister Prejean also tweeted, “Gov. Newsom is also using his full executive power to deal two other blows to California’s machinery of death: he has ordered the execution chamber at San Quentin to be torn down, and he is withdrawing the state’s lethal injection protocol.”
Democratic Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala D. Harris of California, both candidates in the upcoming 2020 presidential contest, each tweeted their praise for the decision. But the president, Mr. Newsom’s most high-profile political antagonist, expressed indignation. At 4:39 a.m. on March 13, Mr. Trump tweeted: “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!”
Mr. Newsom signed his executive order later that morning.