‘When he told me that, a little bit of me died’
Some rage, some praise after Newsom halts death penalty
SACRAMENTO >> The day before Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he was putting California’s death penalty on hold, he invited family members of some death row inmates’ victims to Sacramento to share the news about his difficult decision.
“When he told me that, a little bit of me died,” said Marc Klaas, whose 12-year-old daughter Polly was murdered in Petaluma in 1993. “It’s Trumpian, to me, that you can disregard the will of the people and the law of the land and make some kind of executive decision based on your own personal philosophy.”
But for other death row victims’ families, Newsom’s move came as an important step toward addressing what critics say are the many failures of the country’s largest death row.
“Today is one of the happiest days of my life,” said Aba Gayle, whose teenage daughter, Catherine Blount, was murdered near Auburn in 1980. “An execution is a statesanctioned, premeditated murder. Don’t do that in my name and definitely don’t do that in Catherine’s name.”
Newsom’s executive order — which gave a reprieve to the state’s 737 condemned inmates, a fourth of all inmates on death row in the country — ignited passions on both sides of the deeply emotional issue Wednesday.
Civil rights activists and state Democratic
“These are monsters. The families are expecting some semblance of justice, and now the governor is taking a position against the will of the people and using unilateral authority that he criticizes our president for using.”
— Assemblyman Tom Lackey
“An execution is a state-sanctioned, premeditated murder. Don’t do that in my name and definitely don’t do that in Catherine’s name.”
— Aba Gayle, whose daughter, Catherine Blount, was murdered in 1980
leaders praised his decision as a courageous stand against a punishment that the governor said “strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a Californian.” But opponents argued that he was overriding voters, who rejected a death penalty repeal and chose to speed up the execution process just 2½ years ago.
The order, which also included closing the execution chamber at San Quentin prison and withdrew the state’s revised lethal injection policy, doesn’t include commutations and won’t take anyone off death row permanently. A future governor could withdraw Newsom’s moratorium immediately.
Still, it also had widereaching implications. As of Wednesday, a third of all death row inmates are in
states with a governor-imposed moratorium: most in California, along with those from Colorado, Oregon and Pennsylvania.
Facing a crush of cameras on Wednesday morning, with a dozen Democratic elected officials on each side and the Capitol rotunda behind them, Newsom said he couldn’t stomach the thought of sending an innocent prisoner to the execution room.
“I can’t sign my name to that,” he said. “I can’t be party to that. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.”
Because of legal challenges to its legal injection method, California hasn’t executed an inmate since convicted triple murderer Clarence Allen in 2006.
But in 2016, voters narrowly approved an initiative to speed up executions and rejected a measure that would have ended the death penalty. Newsom was one of the few major California officials to support the repeal
proposition; then-Gov. Jerry Brown did not take a position.
Voters could get to have their say again sooner rather than later. Marin Assemblyman Marc Levine introduced a state constitutional amendment Wednesday to repeal the death penalty, a move that could put the issue on the 2020 ballot if it gets approval from two-thirds of the state legislature. Newsom said he would support a repeal if it did go before voters again.
“We are never going to let one of these people out of jail. They will be in prison for the rest of their lives,” Democrat Levine said. “But we will no longer be wasting billions of dollars on a death penalty that is rarely used — only 13 since 1978. How is that justice?”
Newsom said he had “enormous respect and admiration” for victims’ families who disagree with him, and said he had heard from parents on both sides of the
But Klaas, who lives in Sausalito, argued that Newsom was defending “the worst dregs of our society.” Seeing his daughter’s killer, Richard Allen Davis, executed after more than 20 years on death row would mean “his influence would stop, that I’d never have to think about him again,” Klaas said.
Tami Alexander, the wife of former NFL star Kermit Alexander, whose mother, sister and two young nephews were murdered in a 1984 home invasion in Los Angeles, also blasted Newsom. The killer in that case, Tiequon Cox, has spent more than three decades on death row.
“We’re disappointed that this feels more like a dictatorship than it does a democracy,” she said. “Why should any of us sit on a jury now? What difference does it make?”
But some victims’ families came to the Capitol to
support the governor.
“He recognized with maturity and with intellect that the system is broken; that he was not going to be the one that executed somebody who was possibly innocent,” said Bethany Webb, whose sister, Laura, was killed in a Seal Beach mass shooting in 2011 by a shooter who’s serving life in prison. A tattoo of Laura riding a motorcycle now covers Bethany’s right arm.
Sen. Kamala Harris lauded Newsom, calling his move “an important day for justice” in a statement.
“It’s time to turn the page on this chapter and end a deeply flawed system of capital punishment in California,” said Harris, who is running for the Democratic nomination for president and has faced scrutiny over her own stands on the death penalty as San Francisco district attorney and state attorney general.
While many Democratic leaders applauded the governor’s action, the condemnation from Republicans — and President Donald Trump — was swift.
“Defying voters, the Governor of California will halt all death penalty executions of 737 stone cold killers,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Friends and families of the always forgotten VICTIMS are not thrilled, and neither am I!”
Assemblyman Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, called Newsom’s decision “shameful.”
“These people who are on death row, the 737 people, have committed over 1,000 atrocities, and almost 300 of them have been involved in rape and brutal behavior prior to their death,” Lackey said Wednesday. “These are monsters. The families are expecting some semblance of justice, and now the governor is taking a position against the will of the people and using unilateral authority that he criticizes our president for using.”
The lethal injection chamber at San Quentin State Prison in September 2010. The state has not had an execution since 2006.
Marc Klaas stands in front of a portrait of his daughter, Polly Klaas, at his home in Sausalito. Polly was killed in 1993 when she was 12.