Ending a barbaric, discriminatory practice

Governor’s death-penalty moratorium a major step on a most egregious wrong

The author is the director of the American Civil Liberties Union Capital Punishment Project.

Gov. Gavin Newsom dealt a major blow to the nation’s already anemic death penalty when he announced a moratorium on the practice in California. With 737 death row prisoners, the state has by far the nation’s largest death row, dwarfing the next largest states, Florida with 353 and Texas with 232. The death penalty is barbaric and riddled with error and bias, and other states should follow California’s lead in halting its use.

The death penalty is inseparable from the taint of racial discrimination. In fact, racial bias does not come at one stage of this process—it permeates the entire process. Prosecutors discriminate against jurors of color in jury selection, and the death penalty is used overwhelmingly in favor of white victims rather than victims of color.

Another problem: Five former death row prisoners have been exonerated in California, and there almost certainly are other innocent prisoners languishing under California’s broken system. There is also a base problem of unfairness with the practice that is largely unseen by the public in the form of abysmal lawyering.

It’s worth pointing out that Newsom is now part of an accelerating nationwide trend in the legislatures and courts—and among governors—that have weighed the death penalty’s fatal flaws and rejected it accordingly.

The Washington State Supreme Court ended the death penalty in 2018, becoming the third high court to reject the it on state constitutional grounds because of racial bias. Wyoming and Utah—both conservative states—each have come close to repealing the death penalty, based on concerns about costs and innocence. And a large number of governors have suspended the death penalty because of grave concerns with its fairness and applications.

The death penalty represents the most egregious wrong our criminal punishment system can mete out—taking someone’s life. Newsom has struck a blow against this barbaric and flawed practice. Legislators, justices and governors should take note. So should the U.S. Supreme Court.

The tide is turning, and now is the time to end this arbitrary, unfair and discriminatory method of punishment nationally.