“There Are Innocent People on Death Row” — Citing Wrongful Convictions, California Governor Halts Executions

Posted on Thursday, 14th March 2019 @ 01:13 PM by Text Size A | A | A

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IN A HISTORIC EXECUTIVE ORDER signed Wednesday morning, California Gov. Gavin Newsom imposed a moratorium on executions and ordered the death chamber at San Quentin Prison — unused following a $853,000 renovation a decade ago — closed. “We are, as I speak — as I speak — shutting down, removing the equipment in the death chamber at San Quentin,” Newsom said at a press conference at the state capitol in Sacramento.

In remarks that emphasized racial disparities and the risk of executing innocent people, Newsom described his decision as the culmination of “a 40-year journey” that began when he was just a child. His grandfather introduced him to Pete Pianezzi, who came close to receiving the death penalty in 1940 after being set up by the mob. Pianezzi was eventually pardoned in 1981, at the age of 79. But wrongful convictions remain a profound danger. “You had someone just last year that was released from death row after serving 26 years in San Quentin,” he said, referring to the case of Vicente Benavides, exonerated in April 2018.

Newsom’s order leaves intact the sentences of all 737 condemned people in the state, the largest death row in the country. It also does nothing to stop prosecutors from seeking new death sentences, something California district attorneys have proven eager to do. In this sense, Newsom’s announcement merely formalizes the status quo in a state whose death penalty system has come to be defined by disarray — and where no executions have been carried out in more than 13 years.

Nevertheless, the governor’s language against the death penalty was passionate and unambiguous, suggesting that he could take more decisive action in the future. He explained that he felt no choice but to act now upon being confronted with the question of whether he would continue the efforts of the previous administration to adopt a viable lethal injection protocol. “I would be lying if I said I could support that,” he said. In addition, he said, there are 25 people on death row who have exhausted their appeals, raising the possibility that he would have to oversee their executions, something he would be unwilling to do.

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