“We must always strive to sustain a criminal justice system that reflects our values of fairness and equality. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s action today represents a bold, new direction in California’s march toward perfecting our search for justice.”—Attorney General Xavier Becerra. Becerra’s deputies argue in appellate courts to uphold capital cases. Nothing in Newsom’s order granting reprieves to 737 death row inmates suggests that work must stop.

Why Newsom issued 'reprieves'

San Quentin's lethal injection gurney and gas chamber chairs head for storage.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision to grant a “reprieve” to 737 death row inmates rather than commutations reducing their sentences to life in prison without parole is significant for at least two immediate reasons:

  • If he had issued a mass commutation, the California Supreme Court would have had the authority to review his decision to determine whether he had abused his authority. He has the power to issue reprieves.
  • If he commuted their sentences, Newsom would have been required to give at least a 10-day notice to district attorneys in the counties where the convictions occurred. Prosecutors in turn would have been obliged to try to contact surviving family members of victims.

That notice requirement stems from a 2011 law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, who went on to issue more commutations than any governor in history.

The legislation was a reaction to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s decision on his last day in office to shorten the sentence of former Speaker Fabian Nunez’s son, who had been serving a 16-year sentence for manslaughter in the slaying of a San Diego State University student in 2008. Nunez’s son, Esteban, since has been released.

At the time, Brown’s spokesman said: “Victims and their families should not be blindsided when a request is made for a sentence to be commuted. This bipartisan bill ensures ample notification and a more transparent process.”

Reprieves don’t carry the weight of a commutation. They’re generally temporary, issued when an execution in imminent.

  • Ward Campbell is a retired deputy attorney general who prosecuted death penalty cases and also defended governors’ use of clemency powers: “A reprieve is a delay. It doesn’t necessarily stop any cases. The convictions are intact. A new governor could lift the reprieve.”

A possible 2020 death penalty vote

Gov. Gavin Newsom and, to the far right, Assemblyman Marc Levine.

Capital punishment supporters expressed outrage over the governor’s decision, The Los Angeles Times reported.

“Appalling, disgusting, horrific: Families speak out against death penalty reprieve,” The Sacramento Bee headline reads.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision to block executions also may resonate with his base of younger, more liberal voters who are most likely to turn out in 2020 if the death penalty is back on the ballot.

In a state where two-thirds of voters disapprove of President Donald Trump, experts expect heavy Democratic turn-out in the March primary and November general election. And those voters could be more open to repealing the death penalty.

While there’s no current independent polling on the death penalty, the Institute for Governmental Studies sampled the electorate in September 2016 when competing death penalty measures were on the ballot. Voters ultimately rejected repealing the death penalty and supported a measure to speed up executions.

Six weeks out from the 2016 election, the IGS poll found:

  • 63 percent of Democrats supported repeal.
  • 55 percent of voters 18-29 and 54 percent of voters 30-39 want to repeal the death penalty.
  • Support was especially high in the voter-rich Bay Area.

Assemblyman Marc Levine, a Marin County Democrat, has introduced a measure that would ask voters in 2020 to ban the death penalty. Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins and Speaker Anthony Rendon joined Newsom at his news conference announcing the mass reprieve, showing they support Newsom’s move.

Newsom on Wednesday said: “If it indeed goes on the ballot, I certainly would be supportive.”

The case that shaped Newsom’s view

Justice William Newsom fought to exonerate Pete Pianezzi.

Gov. Gavin Newsom recalled a name from across the generations, Pete Pianezzi, as he explained his reasoning for granting reprieves to 737 death row inmates.

Newsom: “My grandfather had made it a life pursuit to address the injustice of Pete’s arrest and prosecution for a crime he didn’t commit.”

It was a classic mob hit, circa October, 1937:

  • Two gunmen walked into an L.A. cafe and shot and killed Les Bruneman, who had run gambling operations in the Redondo Beach area, and a busboy.
  • Pianezzi, part of a crew that robbed banks in L.A. at the time, was arrested, tried and convicted of the double homicide in 1940.
  • He might have been executed except a single juror held out. He was, however, sent to prison, serving 13 years at Folsom.

Pianezzi made his way to San Francisco and Mill Valley, where he found work distributing the San Francisco Examiner.

Newsom’s grandfather and then his father, both named William, became convinced of Pianezzi’s innocence. In the late 1970s, hitman-turned-informant Jimmy Fratianno told prosecutors that two other mobsters, Frank Bompensiero and Leo Moceri, committed the murder.

Journalists Jon Standefer of the San Diego Union Tribune and Carl M. Canon, first at the U-T and then at the San Jose Mercury, took up his cause as well.

In 1981, Newsom’s father, California Court of Appeal Justice William Newsom, persuaded Gov. Jerry Brown to pardon Pianezzi.

Newsom: “I was a young man learning that life story and also got to know Pete. … I also had the opportunity in that spirit to start thinking and reflect upon the death penalty.”

Justice Newsom, who died last year, presided over Pianezzi’s wake in 1992, at San Francisco’s Washington Square Bar & Grill.

Southern California Edison's stress worsens

The Thomas Fire started on Dec. 4, 2017 and raged for 40 days.

Ventura County fire investigators determined that Southern California Edison power lines sparked the 2017 Thomas Fire that led to the Montecito landslide that killed 23 people.

CALmatters reporter Judy Lin reports that the finding will place more pressure on utilities to emphasize fire prevention as climate change adds to the wildfire threat.

It also will add to Edison’s financial stress as it seeks to avoid the fate of Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which declared bankruptcy in the face of billions in costs related to Northern California wildfires in 2017 and 2018.

The Thomas Fire started on Dec. 4, 2017, extraordinarily late for a wildfire. It raged for 40 days in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, denuding hills and leading to the killer Montecito mudslide in a deluge the following month.

The Los Angeles Times reports Edison is on the hook for more than $1.3 billion in insurance claims from fire victims and for $400 million in claims from the mudslides.

  • PG&E, which postponed the deadline for submitting nominees for its new board of directors until next week, is said to be considering the outgoing chief of the Tennessee Valley Authority to be its new chief executive officer.
  • Gov. Gavin Newsom has set April 12 as the deadline for his advisers to produce a response to how the state should confront wildfires.

Take a number: 263

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.

The California Supreme Court has affirmed 263 death penalty cases, though all but 25 inmates have more appeals available to them in federal and state courts. I asked the court’s spokespeople how the justices will deal with capital cases now that Gov. Gavin Newsom has announced a moratorium. There was no response. Because the law remains in place, expect the court most likely will continue to act on cases.

Commentary at CALmatters

Photo Illustration of high-speed rail.

Robbie Hunter, State Building and Construction Trades Council of California: At the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, we are far from naïve. We understand the political and economic challenges that face the completion of high-speed rail, and we are up for the fight and plan to fight along with every elected leader who is willing to fight for California’s quality of life, climate goals and middle-class jobs.

Dan Walters, CALmatters: Gov. Gavin Newsom hopes to have a balanced state budget through his first term. But some economic clouds are looming.


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