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The execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, CA. © Associated Press

(Los Angeles) – Governor Gavin Newsom’s decision to order a moratorium on executions in California shows leadership on this key human rights issue, Human Rights Watch said today. With today’s announcement, California continues a trend in the United States away from the inherently cruel punishment, joining Colorado, Oregon, and Pennsylvania, which have similar bans, and 20 states that have abolished the death penalty.

Newsom has recognized the cruelty, the moral and fiscal costs, and the discriminatory nature of death sentencing in the state. California has 737 prisoners on death row, more than twice as many as any other state.

“Governor Newsom has demonstrated great courage and leadership in ending the cruel, costly, and unfair practice of executing prisoners,” said Alison Parker, US managing director at Human Rights Watch. “Californians should be proud their state has taken a stand to end state-sanctioned killing and uphold the human rights of all people.”

Human rights law recognizes the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all people, including even those who have committed terrible crimes. It prohibits torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment. Human Rights Watch believes these rights cannot be reconciled with the death penalty, a form of punishment unique in its cruelty and finality.

In the US, the death penalty is inevitably plagued with arbitrariness, racial disparities, and error; 164 people, including four from California, have been released from death row since 1973 after being later found innocent. Just last month, two California prisoners who each had spent over 30 years on death row were freed after appellate courts found significant errors in their trials.

Studies over the past several decades have found persistent patterns of racial disparities in courts imposing the death penalty, with black people much more likely to receive such verdicts than white people, especially if the victim of their crime is white. According to a recent statistical summary issued by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, of the 737 prisoners on death row, 36 percent are black, though black people make up less than 7 percent of the state’s population.

A 2011 study found that the death penalty had cost California taxpayers over $4 billion since its reinstatement in 1978.

Executions in the US have declined in recent years, with 25 executions in 2018 and 3 in 2019, compared with 98 in 1999. California has only killed 13 people since reinstating its death penalty and has not carried out an execution since 2006, when a court found the state’s use of lethal injection violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment, a position also advanced by Human Rights Watch. California voters narrowly rejected ballot initiatives to abolish it in 2012 and 2016, though they passed a measure in 2016 to streamline its administration. Newsom’s moratorium will prevent the state from resuming executions.

“The governor has taken a strong moral stand and we hope other states will follow,” Parker said. “Human Rights Watch believes the sentences of all 737 prisoners on California’s death row should be commuted.”

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