Capital Punishment in California: Policy or Perspective?

As Gavin Newsom’s executive order—a sort of final safeguard against capital punishment—faces possible opposition in next month’s election, the lives of hundreds of death row inmates across California hang in the balance like never before.

October 18, 2022

With the 2022 gubernatorial election right around the corner, conflicting views over capital punishment, or the death penalty, will once again be brought to the forefront of California politics. Governor Gavin Newsom had previously issued an executive order placing a moratorium on capital punishment. While this policy has effectively halted all executions in California, around seven hundred inmates still remain on death row, with their executions expected to proceed should the moratorium be lifted. A new governor would have the power to overturn Newsom’s ruling. 

On the surface, Californian citizens seem to have made up their minds over this legislation, with a sizable majority (48% vs 33%) supporting Newsom’s executive order. However, voters have long been split over the minutiae of the capital punishment policy, rejecting two ballot measures, one in 2012 and another in 2016, that would have completely abolished the death penalty in California. Because of this, it’s important to examine various perspectives throughout the community to create a more nuanced viewpoint on public opinion.

While viewpoints on the death penalty differ across age, race, and party lines, the overall U.S. population still appears to be in favor of capital punishment. Despite this consensus, the majority of Americans still believe that capital punishment fails to deter serious crime and puts innocent lives at risk due to improper sentencing procedures. The primary argument in favor of capital punishment appears to be a retributive one, as individuals believe that putting a murderer to death will bring solace to the victim’s families. However, further investigation reveals this to not always be the case. 

Though some family members of victims do support the execution of their killers, this matter proves untrue in the vast majority of cases. A study on the family members of 138 victims found that only 35% of them felt the execution was just, while 31% felt some sense of closure from the execution taking place. Mark Heyer, whose daughter was killed while protesting a white supremacist rally in Virginia, is one of the latter category. In spite of the devastating loss, Heyer still spoke against the use of capital punishment in the sentencing of her killer, stating:

I don’t relish the thought of [him] getting the death penalty. That’s my belief. I’d rather him get his heart straight and get life [in prison].

Heyer’s sentiment is often heard from the families of those murdered—that an individual who receives the death penalty will never feel guilt for the crime they committed, with only an extended prison sentence bringing that kind of penance.

Ultimately, capital punishment remains a divisive issue in American politics; many citizens support it, but factors like ethicality, practicality, and effectiveness offer strong arguments against its continued practice. 

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