One Month Later, Strong Emotions About California's Execution Moratorium

One month into California’s moratorium on executions, the historic action by Governor Gavin Newsom (pictured) is drawing high praise from exonerees, mixed reviews from victims’ families, and unusually personal condemnation from political adversaries. Kirk Bloodsworth ­— the first former death-row prisoner exonerated by DNA evidence — wrote that he was “thrilled” by the news of the moratorium. Bloodsworth, the interim executive director of the death-row exonerees’ organization, Witness to Innocence, said the moratorium would prevent the “unforgivable and grave mistake” of executing an innocent person. Beth Webb — whose sister and a close friend were killed and whose mother was wounded in the deadliest mass shooting in Orange County history — said she “could not be prouder to have Gov. Gavin Newsom standing with me and other loved ones of victims for whom the death penalty has created years of prolonged pain and suffering rather than any sense of justice.” At the same time, several California district attorneys staged a press conference with family members of other victims to denounce Newsom and the moratorium, and four prosecutors authored a CNN op-ed accusing the governor of ignoring victims and “singlehandedly undermining” California’s democratic government.

At an April 11 press conference in Sacramento the day after prosecutors announced they would seek the death penalty against Joseph DeAngelo — linked by DNA to at least 13 murders and 50 rapes in the 1970s and 1980s — Orange County District Attorney said “Governor Newsom took a knife and stabbed all the victims and all the victims’ families in the heart.” Ron Harrington — whose brother was murdered and sister-in-law was raped and murdered called the accused Golden State Killer “the worst of the worst of the worst ever. He is the poster child for the death penalty,” Harrington said. In their CNN op-ed, District Attorneys Anne Marie Schubert of Sacramento County, Michael Hestrin of Riverside County, Lisa Smittcamp of Fresno County, and Gilbert Otero of Imperial County derided the moratorium order as “a slap in the face to crime victims and their families” and an “autocratic decree [that was] a disgraceful day for democracy.”

In an op-ed in the Mercury News, Bloodsworth called the moratorium necessary to address California’s “long history of wrongful convictions.” He wrote that, “[s]ince 1989, 191 men and women have been exonerated of serious crimes in California. And since the death penalty was reinstated in the state, five men have been released from death row.” Those wrongful convictions, he said, had been caused by “witness misidentification, the use of junk science, false informant testimony, misconduct by police or prosecutors, and false confessions,” with multiple causes often present in each case. In an April 28, 2019 op-ed in the Orange County Register, Webb described how years of deliberate misconduct by Orange County sheriffs and prosecutors forced local courts to bar the death penalty for convicted mass murderer Scott Dekraai. “From the beginning, it was clear the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney’s office were so focused on pursuing the death penalty that they were willing to cheat, withhold evidence and even lie on the stand” to stonewall the investigation of a multi-decade scandal involving the deliberate misuse of prison informants. “Because of the way some overzealous prosecutors pursue the death penalty at all costs, this case that should have been quickly concluded dragged on for six years, subjecting me, my family and the loved ones of the other victims to unimaginable pain,” Webb said. She also warned of “another, insidious, evil of the death penalty… [, that] it is wielded as a tool to score political points by an increasingly small group of prosecutors.”

Newsom’s moratorium order also drew support from six former governors who had granted clemency, imposed moratoria, or ended the death penalty in their states. In a blog post, Governors Richard Celeste, John Kitzhaber, Martin O’Malley, Bill Richardson, Pat Quinn and Toney Anaya wrote that Newsom’s action “took great courage, and the ability to see that his state’s death row … exemplified just how broken the system is.” The former governors praised Newsom for recognizing that “inaction isn’t an option” and assured Newsom that “he isn’t alone.”

(Kirk Bloodsworth, Opinion: My wrongful conviction shows need to abolish death penalty, The Mercury News, March 27, 2019; Beth Webb, I will spend my life fighting against the death penalty and I’m proud to have Newsom with me, The Orange County Register, April 28, 2019; Anne Marie Schubert, Michael Hestrin, Lisa Smittcamp, and Gilbert Otero, California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s death penalty moratorium is a disgrace, CNN, April 23, 2019; Richard Celeste, John Kitzhaber, Martin O’Malley, Bill Richardson, Pat Quinn and Toney Anaya, Six former governors tell CA Gov. Newsom “he isn’t alone”, Death Penalty Focus Blog, April 12, 2019; Andrew O’Reilly, Family members of murder victims slam California Gov. Newsom’s moratorium on death penalty, Fox News, April 11, 2019.) See Victims, Innocence, and Prosecutorial Misconduct.