CAL GOV - With the stroke of his pen, California Governor Gavin Newsom could have a significant impact on the death penalty across the US.
Though Newsom lacks the power to end capital punishment in California, he could take executive action to commute the sentences of the roughly 700 condemned awaiting execution in in the state—a death row figure that dwarfs those of all other American states. A mass commutation such as this would serve as a powerful statement, would save hundreds of lives, and could act as a catalyst, potentially setting in motion a movement that, for the first time, presents the prospect of achieving total abolition of the death penalty in the United States. Such a humanitarian gesture would likely unsettle supporters of capital punishment and could also intensify pressure on President Joe Biden to consider commuting all federal death sentences.
Newsom has publicly condemned the death penalty—a practice historically linked to slavery and known for its disproportionate impacts on people of color, people struggling with mental health, and members of other marginalized groups who themselves suffer disproportionately from violence, abuse, and neglect. “The intentional killing of another person is wrong,” he said in 2019, when he signed California’s current moratorium on executions into law.
And the precedent for such a statewide commutation exists; a similar initiative was taken in Oregon by former governor Kate Brown, who commuted the sentences of all 17 people on her state’s death row before leaving office.
So what’s preventing Newsom from taking the step that appears to be both aligned with his personal beliefs and squarely within his gubernatorial purview? A look at his recent activities may be telling.
On Oct. 25, he visited Chinese President Xi Jinping, a move that has inspired widespread speculation about a possible presidential run.
Reporting on the visit, the L.A. Times posited: “Though he has repeatedly said he is not planning a run for president, Newsom’s sudden pivot to international diplomacy allows him to build experience that could help in a future run for higher office.”
An opinion piece in The Hill argued: “Biden will be the nominee, but Newsom is the one actually running for president. … Newsom is currently in China, running a shadow campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, just in case President Biden succumbs to the realities of his age and waning mental capacity. … [W]hether Biden is gone next year or in 2028, Democrats have Newsom waiting in the wings.”
As I’ve written previously, I support the decision to confront the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party on his country’s grim human rights record. But lobbying for human rights can come across as hypocritical when carried out by the governor of the state with America’s largest death row population.
If Newsom does in fact hope to pursue the presidency, whether now or in a future cycle, he should bear in mind that a pusillanimous political calculation not to wholesale commute the sentences of all of California’s condemned will not be forgotten.
In addition to Newsom’s media-hyped trips abroad, he has often avowed the aim of imposing the “California Effect,” a phenomenon described by The New York Times as “the state’s longstanding ability to drive national policy through the force of what’s now the world’s fifth-largest economy.”
Responding to a series of questions about using California’s “market power to wade into the culture wars” across the country, Newsom told The Times last summer: “In the spirit of Reagan, it’s a time for choosing. … Which side are you on? You cannot have it both ways.”
Newsom needs to remember these words. One action—the commutation of some 700 death sentences—would advance death penalty abolition in this country like no other. Waiting around for a shot at higher office, or until his final days as leader of the Golden State, is unacceptable. When it comes to the abolition of the death penalty, Newsom can take meaningful action, or can sit back and do nothing.
To quote him back to him: “You cannot have it both ways.”
*Note, this piece originally appeared on Jurist: “Gavin Newsom’s Moral Imperative: Commute All of California’s Death Sentences.” For proper citation: Stephen A. Cooper, “Gavin Newsom’s Moral Imperative: Commute All of California’s Death Sentences,” Jurist, October 31, 2023.
(Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California.) Follow him on “X”/Twitter @SteveCooperEsq