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Gov. Gavin Newsom Suspends Death Penalty In California

March 13, 2019 1:43 p.m.

GUEST: Scott Schafer, senior editor, KQED’s Politics and Government Desk

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The 737 people on California's death row will not face execution at least not while Governor Gavin Newsom is in office. The governor today announced a moratorium on executions in the state.

The question really is do we have the right to kill. Do we have the right to kill. Not. So. Deep. The next essential question I don't believe we do. You know. I know those thing people thinks I fry. But if you rape we don't rape. I think if someone kills we don't kill.

We're better than that. Now practically nuisance move will not change much. There hasn't been an execution in California since 2006. But symbolically it could be a major step toward even ending the death penalty in the U.S. and death penalty advocates including President Donald Trump are already reacting. Joining me is Scott Shafer senior editor of KQED politics and government desk. Scott welcome to the program. Thanks Maureen. What did the governor say were the reasons though for this moratorium.

Well this is something he said he's been thinking about for a very long time. He said he's had an evolution of thinking over several decades really. This is something that his family including his dad was a judge had been involved with and the reasons he laid out were three or four one. The process of killing state killing of an inmate is wrong. He also said that the cost is it's very expensive that that money could be used in a better way. He said that there are innocent people on death row some would disagree with that but certainly in other parts of the country there have been people exonerated who were on death row and a few in California.

Well not recently. And he also speaking to crime victims who he met with in the past several weeks. He said dozens of victims of crime that the death penalty is sort of a false promise that doesn't provide closure to the victims of crime not that he was lecturing them or telling them how they should feel. But he seemed to suggest that the data show that it does not provide the kind of comfort that some who support the death penalty suggests.

Didn't he also mention the inequality of who gets sentenced to death.

He did. And I think that's maybe part of the immorality that he referred to. Obviously if you're poor and can't afford a good attorney you're more likely to be convicted of any crime and more likely to get a death sentence and be unable to adequately defend yourself. We've seen all kinds of racial bias in the criminal justice system including in how capital punishment is meted out. And he did allude to those things as well.

Now I mentioned California hasn't executed a prisoner since 2006 but voters approved of proposition in 2016 that actually would have speeded up executions. Can you explain for us where California was in its legal battles over the death penalty.

Sure. Well there was a legal challenge to that ballot measure Prop 66. And the state Supreme Court invalidated parts of it but most of it went forward. So where the state has been for the last several years is developing and approving a new lethal injection protocol that was the reason the original stay of executions was implemented back in 2006 by a federal judge. And that process has been coming to an end. And I think that's one of the things that motivated the governor to do this now because there's some 25 people on death row who have exhausted their legal appeals.

And if that lethal injection protocol was approved those executions could begin.

And he said he simply did not want to be a governor who presides over executions and this moratorium the governor has enacted is only good for the length of his term is that right.

That's correct. Another governor could change it. I don't know how likely that is. But of course it is a possibility. There also I'm sure be legal challenges to what he did today. He said he feels he's on very solid ground the constitution of California gives the governor a firm right to grant reprieves it's not reviewable by the state Supreme Court unlike say a commutation or a pardon. So he feels that he's on solid ground. We might see a lawsuit against the attorney general because there are still questions about whether he's going to defend California's death penalty and the lethal injection protocol which the governor said today he's withdrawing he's actually going to withdraw that process of approval.

And so I'm sure we'll see lawsuits challenging all aspects of this.

Does this mean there's also a moratorium on death penalty prosecutions that no one will be sentenced to death from now on.

No I mean over the past decade or so we've seen a decline in the number of death penalties handed handed out. There's still a few counties that do it on a regular basis. Counties like Kern county and Riverside a few others. But there is nothing that the governor did today that ends the death penalty. It is still on the books. It's what he's doing is suspending executions. And so there may still be some death penalties that are handed out and those people will go to death row but they will not be executed at least as long as Gavin Newsom is governor.

There's all been already been resistance to the decision from coming from victims rights groups. There's a tweet from President Trump can you tell us about that reaction it's to be expected and it's understandable.

I mean I think you're going to see that in the coming days. You know it's a difference of opinion. There are some who say this is thwarting the will of the voters given Prop 66 that was passed a few years ago.

Governor Newsom's decision follows similar decisions in other states. Where are we nationwide on the issue of executions.

I believe there's 18 states that have banned executions. There are a number of states like Oregon and I believe Washington state that have issued where the governors have done something similar issued a moratorium. You know clearly states have been moving in that direction now. California as I said the death penalty will remain on the books. However today one assemblyman from Orange County which of course is where San Quentin has introduced a constitutional amendment that would lead to putting the question again before voters in 2020 to ban the death penalty in California.

Ultimately that is the way that death penalty will really go away. The vote. The voters have to the voters implemented it they have to take it away.

I've been speaking with Scott Shafer a senior editor at KQED politics and government desk. Scott thank you. You're welcome. San Diego County District Attorney Sommer Steffen was asked by K PBS evening edition host Ebony Monet for her reaction to the governor's moratorium on executions.

I have concerns when you know one man even though he's the governor makes the decision that is contrary to what the will of the people was in 2016. I know I'm going to have a lot of phone calls with mothers and fathers and husbands that have lost loved ones and thought that a justice was achieved and will now feel betrayed.

And coming up later on mid-day edition Stefan talks about her decision to remove hundreds of names from the County gang injunction lists.