California Governor Gavin Newsom has announced plans to sign an executive order suspending the death penalty. While there hasn’t been an execution in the state since 2006, there are over 700 inmates on death row.
How serious is the governor about this? He ordered that the equipment used for executions be dismantled—and photographs emerged today of workers at San Quentin (the only prison where executions are carried out in California) removing the equipment and loading it into trucks. A sign was posted on the former execution chamber door that reads, “Lethal Injection Facility is CLOSED per Executive Order N-09-19.”
But in my conversations with law enforcement officers over the years, they’ve pointed out that the value of the death penalty goes far beyond meting out punishment for a murderer: having the death penalty as a sentencing option provides valuable negotiating leverage during plea discussions between a prosecutor and defense attorney. Because of a backlog of cases before the court, not every case gets tried in front of a jury.
As a result, plea bargains are a regular occurrence to relieve the traffic jam. As a prosecutor, if you have the threat of the death penalty, a defendant is likely to bargain down and accept a deal of life without parole (LWOP). But if the top threat is LWOP, the negotiated compromise becomes a 25-year sentence, eligible for parole in 12 with good behavior. For a killer guilty of first-degree murder, that’s a horrible deal for the people—who rely on law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, and juries to keep them safe.
Moreover, the cost to try all murder cases will now put a significant burden on the justice system. Why? There will be no need for a defense attorney to negotiate in earnest. According to retired senior FBI profiler Mark Safarik, “Why speak to detectives when the worst the system can give you is life? Not to mention the danger this now brings to all the men and women who work in (the Department of) Corrections. If a lifer wants to kill a guard, what sentence can you give him that’s worse than the life sentence he’s already serving?”
But wait. There’s more. What about the cost to the families of the victims? “There are many cases where LWOP, after a significant number of years, gets commuted to life,” Safarik said. “Then they become eligible for parole. So life without parole doesn’t necessarily mean ‘without parole.’”
Thus, if LWOP no longer means LWOP, removing the death penalty from the prosecutor’s negotiating arsenal creates more lifers who could be paroled. Is the governor going to automatically commute the terms of the 737 murderers currently sitting on death row?
Clearly, Governor Newsom’s singular action goes way beyond the issue of whether or not the state should be executing people.
Surely Governor Newsom knows all this. Right? Or does he know it and has ignored the counsel of his prosecutors and state attorney general? If the latter is true, he has prioritized his own feelings and beliefs over the logistics and machinations of the justice system.
But that’s not all. The death penalty was put before California voters on two occasions: in 2012 and 2016. Both times the voters stated they wanted the death penalty to remain in force, as described here by the San Francisco Chronicle.
So this begs the question: why does the governor feel that he needs to undo the will of the people? Has he forgotten that he is there to run the state government for the people, and by the will of the people?
If I’m a California resident (and I am), I must ask myself: if the governor is going to take the law into his own hands and sign an executive order that—twice—the people have stated they do not want, why bother voting? That sets a dangerous precedent for a democracy and brings the governor more in line with the rule of an autocrat.
Democrat or Republican, Independent or other, you can’t be happy when the will of the people is brazenly ignored. And today, Governor Newsom sent a message.
And it’s this: don’t bother voting because your vote doesn’t really matter.