Last week, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced a moratorium on capital punishment, closing the execution chamber at the infamous San Quentin prison and granting a temporary reprieve for the 737 inmates on the state’s death row, nearly a quarter of all death row inmates in the United States.
California reinstated the death penalty in 1978, but it has carried out only 13 executions since 1978, the last one in 2006.
Legal challenges have stalled any further ones, so Mr. Newsom’s move was largely symbolic. But with his moratorium, California joined three other states, Oregon, Colorado and Pennsylvania, whose governors have issued similar ones. And the practice of capital punishment has been abolished by legislatures or courts in many other states as well, the latest one being Washington, whose State Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional just last year.
California voters, however, have several times, over the course of three decades, rejected initiatives to abolish the death penalty and, in 2016, they approved a proposition to speed up the process of executing those condemned to death. But they also voted Mr. Newsom into office, despite his long and vocal opposition to capital punishment.
In justifying his action, Mr. Newsom cited — as he has in the past — its high cost, racial disparities in its application and the fact that a number of executed prisoners have later been found to have been wrongfully convicted. He also questioned the idea of society’s right to take a life.
The move prompted President Trump to tweet: “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!”
Liberal groups like the ACLU have long opposed capital punishment, asserting that executions have disproportionately affected people of color. Non-white inmates have accounted for 43 percent of executions, and 55 percent of people on death row are members of racial minorities. While some dispute the implications of those numbers, research has found that prosecutors more often seek the death penalty for black defendants than for white ones, and that blacks are more likely to get the death penalty if the victim of a crime is white.
But opposition to capital punishment isn’t limited to liberal circles. Distrust of government has led a number of conservative groups and thinkers to applaud moves like Mr. Newsom’s recent one, as it comports, in the words of one conservative group, with “our beliefs in limited government, fiscal responsibility, and the value of life.”
A statement from that group, Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, adds that “The number of men and women on death row who suffer from severe mental illness or impairment is shocking. Capital punishment is a failure and big government at its worst, wasting millions of dollars that could be used to solve cold cases and to make communities safer.”
The U.S., as it happens, is the only Western country that permits capital punishment. In terms of actual executions, it follows only China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan and Egypt, not the most illustrious company to keep.
From a Jewish perspective, the issue of capital punishment in a civil democratic society is fraught. There is, on the one hand, the likelihood bordering on certainty that a risk of facing execution will be a major deterrent to a violent criminal contemplating a heinous crime. And an executed murderer will never murder again.
What is more, the very existence of a death penalty, aside from any deterrent effect, represents a powerful and important societal statement about the odiousness of the crimes for which it is prescribed.
And yet, on the other hand, it is unarguable that people who did not deserve execution have in fact been put to death. At least 39 executions are claimed to have been carried out in the U.S. in the face of evidence of innocence or serious doubt about guilt, according to the Northwest University School of Law. And more than 150 people on death row have been exonerated since the mid-1970s.
Newly available DNA evidence, moreover, has resulted in the exoneration and release of more than 20 death row inmates in the United States since 1992.
However the issue may end up evolving and resolving itself in American society, two things certainly merit the public’s attention and full consideration: That meaningful deterrents and societal policies that signify abhorrence of violent crimes are important. And that ensuring that people not be punished for crimes they didn’t commit is no less so.