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California Governor Gavin Newsom halts death penalty for 737 inmates

Reprieve for Scott Peterson, other murderers

March 12, 2109

Gov. Gavin Newsom put a moratorium on the death penalty in California on Wednesday, sparing the lives of more than 700 death-row inmates.

Saying the death penalty is “ineffective, irreversible and immoral,” he signed an executive order granting reprieves to all 737 Californians awaiting executions – a quarter of the country’s death row inmates.

His action comes three years after California voters rejected an initiative to end the death penalty, instead of passing a measure to speed up executions.

The Democratic governor said the death penalty system has discriminated against mentally ill defendants and people of color, has not made the state safer and has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars.

“You, as taxpayers – you have spent $5 billion since we reinstated the death penalty in this state,” he said. “What have we gotten for that?”

But he made clear that he simply believes killing other people is wrong.

“If you rape, we don’t rape,” he said. “I think if someone kills, we don’t kill.”

To crime victims, Newsom said, “we owe you, and we need to do more and do better. But we cannot advance the death penalty in an effort to soften the blow of what happened.”

California has not executed anyone in more than a decade because of legal challenges to the state’s execution protocol. But executions for more than 20 inmates who have exhausted their appeals could have resumed if those challenges were cleared up, and Newsom has said he worried that could happen soon.

Newsom has long opposed the death penalty. While campaigning for a measure to repeal the death penalty in 2016, he told The Modesto Bee editorial board he would “be accountable to the will of the voters,” if he became governor.

“I would not get my personal opinions in the way of the public’s right to make a determination of where they want to take us” on the death penalty, he said.

Newsom reneged on his commitment to voters, Assemblyman Tom Lackey said. The Palmdale Republican said he will fight the moratorium.

“It’s a reversal of the position he had indicated that he was going to take,” Lackey said. “You’ve got to remember, you’ve got families that are reeling from the brutal nature in which they lost their loved ones.”

Newsom defended himself Wednesday, saying that before he took office, discussing the death penalty was an “intellectual” exercise. Now that he has the power to allow executions, he said, it’s an emotional decision: he can’t be party to the system and still sleep at night.

“It’s not an abstract question any longer,” he said. “I cannot sign off on executing hundreds and hundreds of human beings.”

Voters may have a chance to weigh in again in 2020: Assemblyman Marc Levine announced Wednesday he’s introducing a proposed constitutional amendment in the Legislature that would end California’s death penalty permanently.

In the meantime, the moratorium will be in place for the duration of Newsom’s time in office, the governor’s office said. After that, a future governor could decide to resume executions.

California is one of 31 states with capital punishment, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In recent years, other states have abolished the death penalty and several other governors have placed moratoriums on executions. The California Constitution gives the governor power to grant reprieves to inmates, providing he reports his reasoning to the Legislature.

President Donald Trump alluded to California voters’ support for the death penalty when he criticized Newsom on Wednesday morning.

“Defying voters, the Governor of California will halt all death penalty executions of 737 stone cold killers,” the Republican president tweeted. “Friends and families of the always forgotten VICTIMS are not thrilled, and neither am I!”

Preventing executions through a blanket action is an abuse of the governor’s power, death-penalty supporter Kent Scheidegger told The Bee in an interview earlier this month. The governor’s clemency powers are designed to correct individual cases of injustice, said Scheidegger, legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.

“It’s not supposed to be a weapon for blocking the enforcement of the law that the people have passed just because the governor disagrees with it,” Scheidegger said.

In addition to the moratorium, Newsom’s order withdraws California’s legal injection protocol and closes the execution chamber at San Quentin, where most death row inmates are imprisoned. Those on death row will remain in prison under the order.

His order also points to the 164 people nationwide who have been freed from death row after they were found to be wrongfully convicted.

After years of opposing the death penalty, he’s pointed to his work since becoming governor reviewing clemency petitions, which he says has made the racial and economic discrimination in the system real to him. He took his first executive action related to a clemency request last month, when he ordered additional DNA testing in the case of death row inmate Kevin Cooper.

Shortly after signing the order, Newsom spoke about meeting men imprisoned in San Quentin, including a former high school classmate on death row and a foster brother who did time for dealing crack cocaine. He also talked about a wrongfully convicted man, Pete Pianezzi, who narrowly escaped death row and was later pardoned, and whose case was championed by Newsom’s father and grandfather.

Newsom, in prepared remarks he is expected to deliver Wednesday, also says the system has wasted “billions of taxpayer dollars”.

The state’s residents though, in 2016, narrowly struck down a ballot measure to repeal the death penalty. And Newsom’s decree appears to be a flip-flop from what he told the editorial board of the Modesto Bee newspaper that year while campaigning for the failed measure -- that he would “not get my personal opinions in the way of the public’s right to make a determination of where they want to take us” on the issue.

California hasn’t executed anyone since 2006 due to legal challenges to its methods, and the state has put to death only 13 people since 1978. The new executive order is said to last throughout Newsom’s duration in office, giving a reprieve to 737 individuals on death row.

Here are some of the criminals that get to live their lives for a little bit longer – without fear of execution – following Newsom’s decision:


The disappearance of Scott’s 27-year old wife, Laci Peterson -- who was 8 months pregnant –  gripped the nation in the early 2000s yet ended in tragedy after her body was found dumped in San Francisco Bay. Peterson, in a nationally televised case, was found guilty of her and their unborn son’s murder and was exposed to be living a double life, also having an affair with a massage therapist.


Dubbed by the media as the “Tool Box Killer”, Bittaker was one half of a sadistic duo convicted of raping and killing five teen girls in 1979 after torturing them with household items such as pliers and screwdrivers.

Lawrence Bittaker grins in court during his trial. He was convicted of raping and killing five California teens in 1979.

Four of his five victims were under the age of 17, and Bittaker has been living his life on death row for more than double the number of years they were alive. He once tried to appeal his execution on the basis of faking insanity by drinking water out of his cell’s toilet bowl – and has also filed trivial lawsuits expressing outrage over “broken cookies and soggy sandwiches” being served to him behind bars, prosecutors have said.


Two of the 22 women on death row in California are there for similar reasons – killing their children and then trying, but failing, to kill themselves. Both were going through marital issues at the time of the heinous acts.

Soccoro Caro, left, is on death row for killing three of her four sons in 1999. Susan Eubanks, like Caro, shot herself after killing her children, but lived.

In Caro’s case, she shot three of her four sons in 1999, ages 5, 8, and 11, then blasted herself in the head. Caro’s 1-year-old was spared. That same year, Eubanks gunned down all four of her children – ages 4, 6, 7 and 14, before intentionally firing a round into her abdomen.


Cooper was convicted in the 1983 murders of Doug and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter, Jessica, and 11-year-old neighbor, Christopher. The family and neighbor had been brutally attacked with multiple weapons, including a hatchet, knife and ice pick, while their 8-year-old son survived.

Cooper was convicted for a series of murders in 1983, but has maintained his claim that he was framed. (San Quentin State Prison)

For years, Cooper has claimed he was framed for the killings. Newsom and former Gov. Jerry Brown, in recent months, have ordered new DNA testing of evidence from the investigation. Cooper’s campaign also has seen support from the likes of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris and celebrities such as Kim Kardashian.


Kraft, who came to be known as the “Scorecard Killer,” murdered at least 16 young men over a period of 11 years beginning in 1972. He is also believed to have committed the rape and murder of up to 51 other boys and young men, with many victims who had previously been enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Kraft would typically ply them with alcohol and tranquilizers, before torturing, binding and sexually abusing them. He usually killed his victims by strangulation, asphyxiation or bludgeoning.

He obtained his nickname after investigators discovered a coded list of 61 printed terms and phrases believed to refer to each of his victims. In one of the most gruesome killings, connected to the term “Twiggie, the victim, 19-year-old James Dale Reeves of Cypress, was found near the side of the San Diego Freeway with a 4-foot long twig stuffed inside a body cavity.


Wesson, the former leader of a cult-like clan, was convicted for killing nine of his children in 2004 – all of which he had fathered with his wife, daughters and nieces, in a sickening tale of incest and sexual abuse. He killed the children – seven of which were under the age of 9 -- after a standoff with police in Fresno over a custody dispute.

Wesson was said to be the leader of a cult-like clan before killing his own children. (San Quentin State Prison)

Jerry Dyer, Fresno’s Chief of Police at the time, told KFSN this week that Wesson “was able to control the mind of people to do the unthinkable very similar to what Charles Manson did.” An article published by the station looking back on the case also states Wesson believed he was Jesus and if anyone tried to break up his family, they would all ascend to heaven.


Davis drew national attention in 1993 for the kidnapping, molestation and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas, a Petaluma girl who was snatched from her home at knifepoint during a sleepover with her friends, while her mother was nearby.

Richard Allen Davis became a national figure after kidnapping and killing 12-year-old Polly Klaas. (San Quentin State Prison)