Momentum to Abolish Death Penalty Growing in California


Yard at San Quentin, California. By Zboralski – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Poll results show that Californians prefer sentencing people convicted of first-degree murder to life in prison over death sentences by a 2-to-1 margin, indicating that Governor Gavin Newsom’s decision to impose a moratorium on executions may align with public opinion against the death penalty, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The Public Policy Institute of California statewide survey found that a record-high 62 percent of adults chose life imprisonment with absolutely no possibility of parole as the penalty for first-degree murder, while only 31 percent favored the death penalty.

The poll shows a significant decline in support for capital punishment since 2000, when Californians were evenly split between life imprisonment (47 percent) and death (49 percent).

“This is a case where public opinion continues to shift, and shift support away from the death penalty,” Mark Baldassare, the institute’s president and chief executive, told the Times. Life without parole was favored by men and women and across a range of ethnic groups, ages, and education levels, the survey found.

Governor Newsom’s advocacy against the death penalty could increase support for abolishing the death penalty in California, Mr. Baldassare said. In ordering that California will not execute anyone while he is governor, and announcing that he is considering prohibiting new death sentences, the governor has said, “My ultimate goal is to end the death penalty in California.”

The poll found Governor Newsom’s approval rating to be high among likely voters at 45 percent, and very strong among Democrats at 65 percent.

The same day that Governor Newsom announced the moratorium, Assemblyman Marc Levine (D-San Rafael) introduced a proposed constitutional amendment to ban the death penalty in California. The measure requires two-thirds votes in both houses of the state legislature, where Democrats have two-thirds majorities, in order to appear on the 2020 ballot.

Other indications of Californians’ dwindling support for the death penalty include the decline in new death sentences. From a high of 43 death sentences in 1999, California juries imposed 11 death sentences in 2017 and only five last year.

California has not executed anyone since 2006 due to its inability to develop an execution protocol that meets constitutional requirements. Governor Newsom ordered the dismantling of the execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison and ended the state’s efforts to develop a constitutional method of execution.

Two justices on the California Supreme Court recently wrote a concurring opinion concluding that “California’s death penalty is an expensive and dysfunctional system that does not deliver justice or closure in a timely manner, if at all.”

The opinion by Goodwin Liu, joined by Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, observes that leading judges and prosecutors have long shared Governor Newsom’s view that the state’s death penalty system is “wasteful” and “protracted.”

California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and her predecessor, Ronald M. George, both Republican appointees, have said the state’s death penalty system is dysfunctional, as have federal judges and the state legislature’s blue-ribbon commission, chaired by former Attorney General and Los Angeles County District Attorney John Van de Kamp.

The justices conclude that “the promise of justice in our death penalty system is a promise that California has been unable to keep.”