When Gavin Newsom assumed office just four months ago, he promised Californians his administration would “be bold” and would “aim high.” With his decision to impose a moratorium on executions in his state, effective immediately, he kept both promises, and in so doing, cemented his legacy as a leader unafraid of making big decisions that will resonate for years to come.
What he did last month took great courage, and the ability to see that his state’s death row, with a staggering 750 men and women, exemplified just how broken the system is, and how the only solution to a problem so monumental is to stop, step back, and figure out a better way. As governors who took similar actions in our states, we know it wasn’t an easy decision — big ones never are — but there comes a point when inaction isn’t an option, and the way forward is clear. We also know that it was a decision we have never regretted, and in fact, point to as among our best during our tenures.
Gov. Newsom isn’t swimming against the tide. Recently, Washington’s Supreme Court struck down its death penalty law, and a repeal effort is now underway; and New Hampshire, Colorado, Ohio, and Pennsylvania have real or de facto moratoriums, or repeal bills in the legislature. Each has different reasons for doing so. For some, it’s the overwhelming expense. For others, it’s the rising number of exonerations (164 innocent men and women have been released from death rows around the country since 1973, five of them from California, according to the Death Penalty Information Center), the growing realization that forensic evidence is unreliable at best, or junk science at worst; or the fact that it’s a punishment so barbaric, the United States is the only Western country to still apply it.
In December, we asked then-Gov. Jerry Brown to do what Gov. Newsom is now doing. We knew it wasn’t an easy ask; and he declined. We offered our support then, and we offer it to Gov. Newsom now. There will be strong opposition and possible recriminations from some, and the days and months ahead will be challenging. But we are in the unique position of having at one time been where he is now, and we will assist in any way we can. “If you want to go far, go together,” Gov. Newsom quoted an African proverb in his inaugural address. He has gone far, and he isn’t alone.