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California Moratorium Impacts a Quarter of People on Death Row in US

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order will grant reprieve to 737 people incarcerated on death row.

An armed California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officer stands guard at San Quentin State Prison's death row on August 15, 2016, in San Quentin, California.

Anti-death penalty activists applauded California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s planned executive order announcing a moratorium on capital punishment in the state on Wednesday.

The order will grant reprieve to 737 death row inmates, a quarter of all prisoners awaiting execution in the United States. California’s prison system has the largest death row population in the Western Hemisphere.

Newsom, in his prepared remarks, called the death penalty “inconsistent with our bedrock values” and noted that 164 inmates — including five in California — have been released from death row over the past 45 years after being exonerated of their convictions.

The governor is expected to outline the long history of discrimination within the criminal justice system, making mentally ill, black, brown, and poor convicts more likely to face the death penalty.

“Our death penalty system has been — by any measure — a failure,” the remarks state.“The intentional killing of another person is wrong. And as governor, I will not oversee the execution of any individual.”

When Newsom signs the executive order Wednesday, he will also order the closure of San Quentin State Prison’s execution chamber and repeal the state’s official lethal injection protocol.

Abolitionists expressed hope that Newsom’s decision will convince other states across the country to institute their own moratoriums.

“It is a state people look to to set the tone for national policy,” Shilpi Agarwal, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told the Times. “The fact that so many states have abolished the death penalty — but California hasn’t — has given people cover for this narrative that people are still supportive the death penalty.”

Newsom followed the lead of the governors of Colorado, Oregon, and Pennsylvania, who also recently announced moratoriums on capital punishment, as well as Washington State’s Supreme Court, which banned the practice last year.

“A moratorium in California has enormous symbolic value,” Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told the Times. “It’s part of the momentum we are seeing.”

Some supporters of the move pointed out that despite California’s status as a blue state, Newsom’s decision was a bold one in light of voters’ recent support for state-sponsored executions. Californians rejected a ballot measure which would have ended the death penalty in 2016.

“I do not believe that a civilized society can claim to be a leader in the world as long as its government continues to sanction the premeditated and discriminatory execution of its people,” Newsom plans to say Wednesday.

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