Gov. Gavin Newsom’s implementation Wednesday of a moratorium on capital punishment elicited sharp criticism from several Riverside County lawmakers, one of whom characterized the governor as undermining democracy.
“The governor has given reprieve to serial killers such as William Suff, who was found guilty of murdering 12 women and dumping their bodies in fields in western Riverside County between 1989 and 1991,” said Sen. Jeff Stone, R-La Quinta. “Suff was sentenced to death in 1995, and his death sentence was upheld in 2014 by the California Supreme Court.”
Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, said Newsom’s moratorium was a slap to the “majority of people in this state who want to see justice served for heinous crimes.”
Newsom signed the executive order because he said he believes “the intentional killing of another person is wrong.”
“As governor, I will not oversee the execution of any individual,” he said. “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. Most of all, the death penalty is absolute. It’s irreversible and irreparable in the event of human error.”
There are 737 individuals on Death Row at San Quentin State Prison, according to the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation. Thirteen people have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978, and 25 condemned prisoners have exhausted their state and federal appeals, making them eligible for an execution date, according to the governor’s office.
In 2016, California voters rejected Proposition 62, which called for repealing the death penalty. Voters also approved Proposition 66, which called for limiting death penalty appeals processes, which can drag on for several decades, to five years. However, the state Supreme Court later ruled that the measure functioned as a general guideline, not a mandate.
“With his actions today, the governor has made it clear that, to him, democracy does not matter,” Stone said. “The people have spoken repeatedly on the death penalty, and this governor has chosen to ignore them. When the governor was running for office … he (said) he would separate his personal views from his professional responsibilities to uphold the will of the people — especially when it came to implementing the death penalty.”
Melendez said it was a “sad day” for victims’ families, “who will never see justice served for the loss of their loved ones, taken savagely and prematurely.”
“These were children, sons, daughters, mothers and fathers — lives that were cut short by the brutality of their killers, who are cop killers, rapists, child abusers and sex offenders,” the lawmaker said.
Sen. Richard Roth, D-Riverside, declined to comment on the moratorium, as did Assemblyman Jose Medina, D-Moreno Valley.
Assembly members Eduardo Garcia, D-Indio, and Sabrina Cervantes, D-Corona, did not immediately respond to requests for comment, nor did Sen. Mike Morrell, R-Menifee.
Newsom said capital punishment had been administered “unevenly and unfairly,” with a disproportionately higher number of “people of color” given death sentences. He also highlighted the fact that “innocent people” had received a death verdict, with five condemned men in California seeing their verdicts overturned in the last 45 years based on exculpatory evidence.
Newsom said his executive order was in line with similar actions by governors in Colorado, Oregon and Pennsylvania.