Lawsuit filed against Calif. gov. over death penalty moratorium

The suit claims Gov. Gavin Newsom didn't have the power to halt the executions of 700-plus inmates on death row


By Sean Emery
The Orange County Register

DANA POINT, Calif. — A Dana Point lawyer has filed a civil lawsuit against Gov. Gavin Newsom accusing him of overstepping his authority with a 2019 executive order that created a moratorium on the state's death penalty.

Jim Lacy, a longtime Republican activist, argues that Newsom did not have the power to halt the executions of the 700-plus inmates on California's death row, or to withdraw the state's lethal-injection protocol and dismantle the execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison.

"The case is largely about violation of process, about violation of the constitutional separation of powers," Lacy said. "(The governor) does not have the power to erase the death penalty, he does not have the power to dismantle the death chamber.

"He does have the power to grant reprieves, pardons or commutations," Lacy said, "but he does not have the power to do that across the board."

The Governor's Office did not respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit, which was filed in Sacramento Superior Court.

When he announced the moratorium in 2019, Newsom pledged that as governor he would "not oversee the execution of any individual."

He described the state's capital punishment system as discriminating against the poor, racial minorities and the mentally ill.

The convictions and sentences of those on death row remain, however, and the death penalty is still part of state law, so the moratorium could be undone by a future governor.

Lacy said his interest in the case began after a Sutter County judge last year ruled that Newsom overstepped by mandating that all California voters receive mail-in ballots for the November 2020 election. The ballots were already sent, so the judge cautioned that the governor should not issue such an executive order in the future that changes the law.

Lacy said he decided to research other executive orders issued by Newsom, and ended up taking a closer look at the death-penalty moratorium.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Lacy by attorney Chad Morgan, alleges that state law requires there to be standards for executions and the ability to carry them out.

The lawsuit acknowledges that the governor can grant a reprieve to a death row inmate, but argues that he cannot unilaterally do so for every condemned inmate without individually considering each case.

The lawsuit also notes that California voters in 2016 approved a measure to speed up executions, at the same time rejecting a competing ballot measure to repeal the death penalty.

The moratorium on executions has not stopped some prosecutors from continuing to seek the death penalty.

Prosecutors from several jurisdictions initially sought the death penalty for Joseph DeAngelo, the so-called Golden State Killer. DeAngelo, in exhange for admitting to carrying out 13 murders and numerous rapes, was spared the death penalty but will spend the rest of his life behind bars without the possibility of parole.

Last week, Riverside County prosecutors sought the death penalty for Brandon Willie Martin, a one-time baseball star at Corona High School who bludgeoned his father, an uncle and an alarm installer to death with a bat engraved with his name. But a judge, following a recommendation by a jury, instead sentenced Martin to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

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(c)2021 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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