The death penalty in California could be on the precipice of a dramatic change.
On Wednesday, the California Supreme Court will begin hearings in a case challenging the state’s application of the death penalty. The state’s highest court will consider whether to raise the bar for when a jury can sentence a defendant to capital punishment, a decision that could affect pending cases and potentially reverse death sentences for the 704 inmates already on California’s Death Row. It’s a move supported by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who in October took the unprecedented step of filing a brief urging the state Supreme Court to change how California applies the death penalty, arguing the current process is “infected by racism.”
The landmark hearing follows Newsom’s Friday executive order mandating an independent investigation into the case of Death Row inmate Kevin Cooper, who was convicted in 1985 of a quadruple murder but continues to maintain his innocence. Also Friday, Newsom granted 14 pardons, 13 commutations and eight medical reprieves, including pardons for two inmate firefighters who were facing deportation.
California’s reexamination of the death penalty comes amid a fraught debate over public safety in the wake of a string of mass shootings and a surge in gun violence. A lot of political futures — including Newsom’s — could be on the line. The governor angered some Californians by ordering a halt to the death penalty in 2019, just three years after voters rejected an attempt to end capital punishment. Recall organizers cite the order as a key reason to vote him out of office.
Capital punishment could also play a pivotal role in next year’s state attorney general race, with Newsom appointee Rob Bonta opposed to the death penalty and his main challenger so far, Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, in favor of it.
A recent poll from UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies found that although 44% of California voters support repealing the death penalty, a sizable 21% remain undecided.