“The intentional killing of another person is wrong. And as governor, I will not oversee the execution of any individual.” With these words, Governor Gavin Newsom announced Wednesday the suspension of the death penalty in California, the most populous state of the US, and the one which accounts for a quarter of the total number of death row inmates in the United States.
As a result, the ticking clock has been stopped for 737 prisoners waiting to be executed in San Quentin prison, on the shore of San Francisco Bay. California became the 21st state to abolish or suspend the death penalty, in a country where a majority of the public still favors capital punishment. This is the latest chapter in the history of a highly contested issue, which has had a central place for decades in the American political and cultural debate.
Justifying his moratorium on executions, Newsom mentioned class discrimination, and especially racial discrimination, which are systemic facts in the bloated American judiciary and prison system. This system, the governor said, has historically “discriminated against defendants who are mentally ill, black and brown, or can’t afford expensive legal representation.”
“Our death penalty system has been—by any measure—a failure,” Newsom added, one which has sometimes led to the execution of innocent people. Overall, six out of 10 inmates on death row in America are from minority groups, and capital punishment is still applied with greater enthusiasm and efficiency in the former slaveholder states of the South.
Discrimination is only one of the issues to consider with regard to this unresolved ethical and social dilemma, with a tortuous legal history. Beside the fact that it is a moral wrong, Newsom also mentioned the high cost of maintaining the execution apparatus as a whole (estimated at around $4 billion today).
In America, the death penalty, although deeply rooted in the country’s retributive and punitive culture, was temporarily suspended by an extraordinary ruling of the Supreme Court in 1972. A few years later, in 1978, it was reinstated, and the executions resumed, although much slowed in practice by the long process of exhausting all legal appeals.
The last executions in California date back to 2006, during Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration. Later on, the administration of capital punishment was effectively blocked by a series of lawsuits about the cruelty of the lethal injection method, the latest method of execution after the electric chair and the gas chamber, which involves the successive administration of three drugs (one anesthetic, one paralytic and one lethal).
Since 1977, 13 people have been executed in California, while 119 prisoners died on death row (26 of them by suicide). Other states have also enacted similar moratoriums (the last was Illinois in 2006), but California’s is by far the most important—even though the latest ballot proposal that attempted to abolish the death penalty in the state, put to a vote in 2016, was rejected 53% to 46%.
Newsom’s decision also marks the latest chapter of the increasingly open conflict between California and Washington, where nationalist populism still rules. An angry tweet from President Donald Trump was not long in coming: “Friends and families of the always forgotten VICTIMS are not thrilled, and neither am I!”