California governor reprieves all death row murderers

California governor reprieves all death row murderers
Gavin Newsom and Xavier Becerra. Fox News video

California Governor Gavin Newsom has granted a reprieve to all 737 murderers on California’s death row and placed a moratorium on executions in the state. Newsom claimed the death penalty “isn’t a deterrent,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

But in fact, it is a deterrent: The death penalty saves lives by deterring murder, as several studies have found. As the Associated Press noted in 2007, “Each execution deters an average of 18 murders, according to a 2003 nationwide study by professors at Emory University. (Other studies have estimated the deterred murders per execution at three, five and 14).”

Newsom “is usurping the express will of California voters and substituting his personal preferences via this hasty and ill-considered moratorium on the death penalty,” said Michele Hanisee, president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys.

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Newsom claimed the death penalty “has discriminated against defendants who” are “black and brown.” Not in California it hasn’t. For example, in 1990, an in-depth study of California’s criminal justice system found that sentencing in California was racially fair and non-discriminatory, and that similarly-situated whites and minorities got very similar sentences. (See Stephen P. Klein, et al., “Race and Imprisonment Decisions in California,” Science, Vol. 247, pp. 812-816 (1990)).

That study’s finding of racial fairness in sentencing was not an anomaly: In 1994, federal government statistician Patrick A. Langan analyzed data on 42,500 defendants in the nation’s 75 largest counties and found “no evidence that, in the places where blacks in the United States have most of their contacts with the justice system, that system treats them more harshly than whites.” As he noted in “No Racism in the Justice System,” “Many studies have been conducted that show no bias in the arrest, prosecution, adjudication, and sentencing of blacks.

The lead researcher on the study finding California was fair to blacks and Hispanics was RAND Corporation statistical expert Dr. Stephen P. Klein. Klein was a well-respected, center-left researcher who later exposed fraud by a Republican official. The ACLU hired him to study California death sentences in hopes of proving the death penalty was racist, but Dr. Klein concluded instead that the application of California’s death penalty was racially fair and non-discriminatory.

California hasn’t executed anyone since 2006, when Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor. Although voters in 2016 narrowly approved a ballot measure to speed up the punishment, no condemned inmate had faced imminent execution. Federal judges in California are much more hostile to the death penalty than judges in most of the country. Even after the state courts uphold a death sentence, an inmate can file a habeas petition in federal court challenging his death sentence.

Since California’s last execution, its death row population has grown to house one-fourth of America’s death-row inmates. They include Richard Davis, who kidnapped 12-year-old Polly Klaas during a slumber party and strangled her, and killers who tortured their victims to death.

The death penalty can prevent murderers from killing more people while in prison. A murderer already serving a life sentence has nothing to lose from killing his cellmate if there is no death penalty. For example, serial killer Darren Witmer killed over and over again due to the lack of an effective death penalty in his state: He “killed two senior citizens, got locked up,” killed his cellmate, and then “tried to extort money” from a 75-year old widow. He had nothing to lose from committing additional crimes, and he knew it.

Hans Bader

Hans Bader

Hans Bader practices law in Washington, D.C. After studying economics and history at the University of Virginia and law at Harvard, he practiced civil-rights, international-trade, and constitutional law. He also once worked in the Education Department. Hans writes for and has appeared on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.” Contact him at


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