Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom Orders Moratorium On Death Penalty California voters are the only ones who can repeal the death penalty, something they've rejected twice in recent elections. The governor's moratorium will spare the lives of more than 700 inmates.

Gov. Gavin Newsom Suspends Death Penalty In California

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Green in Culver City, Calif., a state that has by far the largest death row population of any U.S. state. Now, those inmates will remain there. They won't be sent for execution. Governor Gavin Newsom is expected to sign an executive order today placing a moratorium on the death penalty. He is a longtime critic of the death penalty system, which he says is applied unequally. Scott Shafer from member station KQED in San Francisco told me what the governor's order does.

SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: Yeah. So it really is several things. The most important is that this order he's going to sign places a moratorium on executions in California basically by giving a reprieve to the men and women - mostly men - who are on death row, so suspending the executions for a while. The second thing it does is closes the state's execution chamber at San Quentin Prison. And that's almost a formality since it really hasn't been used at all since 2006. That was the last time California put somebody to death.

And finally, it withdraws the state's lethal injection protocol. It's been under review for several years now. That's why there haven't been any executions. And that's important because there are some 25 inmates on death row right now who've exhausted their legal appeals. So if executions were to begin, we would have sort of a season of executions in California.

GREENE: So one big central question here is whether the governor can do this at a moment when it seems like California voters are against him on this issue. I mean, voters in the state twice rejected measures to repeal the death penalty. And Newsom actually talked about this in 2016. He was talking to the Modesto Bee when a repeal was on the ballot. Let's listen.

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GAVIN NEWSOM: My position has always been, if ever I was in a position to actually be accountable, I would be accountable to the will of the voters. 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 as it relates to the death penalty.

GREENE: So now he's governor, is he doing exactly what he said he wouldn't do?

SHAFER: Not really. You know, the governor in California has the power to issue reprieves, and he can do that. That's what he's doing. Now, if you support the death penalty, you're going to be very angry because, you know, in 2016, voters passed another ballot measure to speed up executions, narrowly passed it, 51-49. So if you're one of those folks who voted for that, you're going to say, hey, wait a minute. I voted for this already, and you're - you know, you're screwing it up. So - but technically he isn't eliminating the death penalty. He's just suspending it.

GREENE: OK. Technically he's just suspending it, and he has the power to do it. But given what voters have said, I mean, politically this could be quite a challenge for him if - as this goes forward. Let me ask you this. As this goes forward, I mean, there - there's 737 people on death row in the state, I think more than in any state in the country. What happens to them now?

SHAFER: Well, kind of the same thing that's been happening for the past 13 years, David. The population is getting older. There's a saying - or a joke, really - that the leading cause of death on death row in California is old age, and that's pretty much true. The governor's order doesn't change anyone's conviction or their sentence. No one's getting out of prison. There'll be no executions as long as Newsom is governor. But, you know, that could change if a new governor comes in or if there's a lawsuit that somehow forces California to change the policy and get rid of those reprieves.

GREENE: All right. Scott Shafer reports from member station KQED in San Francisco, giving us that news about the governor's moves today. Scott, thanks a lot.

SHAFER: You're welcome.

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