AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The state of California currently has 737 people on death row. For about the next three years, at least, none of them will be executed. That's because, earlier this week, that state's governor, Democrat Gavin Newsom, granted all of them temporary reprieves because he says the death penalty is inconsistent with the bedrock values of being a Californian. Gavin Newsom has long opposed capital punishment. When I spoke with him earlier today, he explained how he thinks about the death penalty differently now that he sits in a governor's office.
GAVIN NEWSOM: It's no longer an intellectual exercise. It's no longer a campaign. It's real. I am entrusted, pursuant to my role and responsibility as governor of California, to make a determination about life or death, to give the order to execute. I just cannot in good conscience do that knowing how racially skewed our criminal justice system is and knowing that it's likely that there are more than a few dozen people on death row in California that are there, wrongly convicted.
CORNISH: Is that something that you know for a fact?
NEWSOM: Well, we know that 164 people, for a fact, have been exonerated from death row since 1973. Academy of Science estimates 4 percent of those on death row are likely to be innocent. You put that in perspective - 737, 4 percent. That's - 30 human beings could be executed under my watch while I have to sleep at night knowing they were innocent.
CORNISH: At the same time, there's roughly 25 people who have exhausted their appeals, which means they've had trials, they have had appeals. They have been through a very lengthy process. What's your response to families who have also had to endure that process? Are you taking away their measure of justice?
NEWSOM: No. And that's the hardest part about this. I've met with dozens of victims, some that are outraged by my reprieve, others that actually and interestingly celebrated it. I met a mother of a 19-year-old who was killed and said, you do not have the right as governor to take away another life in my daughter's name. You will not be doing that. If you do it for my family, you'll be doing that to my family. Very raw, it's very real...
CORNISH: What kind of conversations have you had with people who have said the opposite?
NEWSOM: I was told directly that my job is to eradicate evil. And by executing the person that was responsible for killing this man's daughter, I would be doing that. And while that may be true, it's not just that one individual case that's in front of me. Again, it's hundreds and hundreds of cases, of which two-thirds are people of color, of which one-third are mentally ill in a criminal justice system that not only is skewed racially but also financially. I don't think it is the right thing to do, to execute people with those kind of disparities that are so self-evident in our country.
CORNISH: In 2012, there was a ballot measure that would've eliminated the death penalty that was defeated. Just in 2016, there was a ballot measure that would've eliminated the death penalty. It was defeated.
CORNISH: California voters have very much spoken on this topic. Are you usurping their will?
NEWSOM: Look, a year after we adjudicated that at the ballot box, someone was exonerated and released from death row. Look, I have the right pursuit to the Constitution, the will of the voters to advance reprieves. Consider this...
CORNISH: And I'm not at all I think trying to challenge your right as a governor to do so. The question is - what do you say to all those people who have voted, repeatedly, in support of the death penalty?
NEWSOM: Well, in many cases, they're the same that voted to give the governor the right to reprieve, which is...
CORNISH: Meaning, by electing you, you think they're also voting on this in some way?
NEWSOM: I think they voted for me for my judgment.
CORNISH: Now, in making this argument the way you are - not just in the state but nationally, right? You're on a media tour right now. Have you essentially given up on a legislative or a voter-driven repeal of the death penalty in California?
NEWSOM: No, I want to end the death penalty in California. As someone who twice, not once, was very public in my opposition in the last two efforts, I hope we bring it back. I'm also considering commutations. It's also afforded to me under the Constitution. And I feel very strongly about that...
CORNISH: I ask because it seems like it's - essentially, you're now doing something single-handedly, right?
NEWSOM: Well, that's - the governor has the right to do that, by the way. This is not unique nor are there - a number of other governors in other states have done this, none, of course, in a state as large as California. And, yes. To answer your question, I do want to end the death penalty in the United States of America. I think it's barbaric. You can still hold people accountable. You could still advance justice by doing the right thing and not perpetuating violence by premeditated executions.
CORNISH: Gavin Newsom is the Democratic governor from California. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
NEWSOM: Thank you.
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