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Gov. Newsom Calls Death Penalty 'A Failure'; Halts State Executions

SACRAMENTO (CBS SF) -- The clock stopped ticking Wednesday for more than 730 inmates housed on San Quentin's Death Row including Scott Peterson, Richard Allen Davis, Charles Ng and Cary Stayner after Gov. Gavin Newsom officially signed a moratorium on executions.

There are currently 737 inmates on California's largest-in-the-nation death row. Of those, more than six in 10 condemned California inmates are minorities, which his Newsom's office cited as proof of racial disparities in who is sentenced to die. Since 1973, five California inmates who were sentenced to death were later exonerated.

RELATED: PHOTOS: Work Crew Dismantles San Quentin's Death Chamber

79 condemned California inmates have died of natural causes since the state reinstated capital punishment in 1978. Another 26 committed suicide. California has executed 13 inmates, while two were executed in other states.

Those opposed to Newsom's decision wasted no time in criticizing the move, including President Donald Trump, who took to Twitter to voice his criticism of the decision.

"Defying voters, the Governor of California will halt all death penalty executions of 737 stone cold killers. Friends and families of the always forgotten VICTIMS are not thrilled, and neither am I!" he tweeted.

One of those family members who spoke out against the executive order was well-known victim's rights advocate Marc Klaas. His daughter Polly was kidnapped and murdered in 1993.

"These are the guys that kill cops, these are the guys that kill women. These are the guys that kill little children, said Klaas. These are individuals who have been sentenced to death by a jury of their peers because their actions were so evil."

Republican Assemblyman Tom Lackey released a statement that said, in part, "Death row inmates are not ordinary criminals. They are kidnappers. They are cop-killers. They are rapists who murdered their victims. These are the monsters Governor Newsom is protecting."

Newsom called his decision "a 40-year journey for me." He referred to the case of Pete Pianezzi, who his grandfather had introduced him to when he was a boy.

Pianezzi was a longtime friend of William Newsom who was convicted of first-degree murder for shooting and killing a gambler and busboy in Los Angeles in 1937. Pianezzi escaped the death penalty by a single vote and served 13 years in prison.

"This is a journey that began with an introduction to an elderly man named Pete Pianezzi," Newsom said. "I was about 10-11 years old my grandfather introduced me to Pete. My grandfather had made it a life pursuit to address the injustice of Pete's arrest and prosecution for a crime he did not commit...He was setup (by the mob) to be executed save for one person on the jury."

Pianezzi was eventually pardoned and released from prison.

Newsom also withdrew the lethal injection regulations that death penalty opponents already have tied up in courts and shuttering the new execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison that has never been used.

"The intentional killing of another person is wrong and as governor, I will not oversee the execution of any individual," he said in prepared remarks.

Newsom called the death penalty "a failure."

"The intentional killing of another person is wrong and as Governor, I will not oversee the execution of any individual," he said. "Our death penalty system has been, by all measures, a failure."

"It has discriminated against defendants who are mentally ill, black and brown, or can't afford expensive legal representation. It has provided no public safety benefit or value as a deterrent," Newsom said, making his case. "It has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars. Most of all, the death penalty is absolute. It's irreversible and irreparable in the event of human error."

"The law is the law this is crystal clear," he continued. "The constitution of the state of California provides the governor the ability to reprieve, the ability to do this moratorium."

If there is one essential component in Wednesday's executive order, the latitude granted a governor might be it. Governor Newsom cannot make the death penalty unlawful in California, but as the state's chief executive, he can simply decide that he will not use the state's execution apparatus.

At 12:45 p.m., the Governor's Twitter account posted photos of the lethal injection chamber at San Quentin being dismantled and closed.

"This is not a moral decision, when you override the will of the people so directly," said Republican Assemblyman Tom Lackey of Palmdale.

Lackey called the move executive overreach. He pointed to 2016 when California voters rejected a ballot measure that would have repealed the death penalty and approved a measure intended to speed up executions.

Newsom said during his announcement that he would support another ballot initiative repealing the death penalty in California. Lackey scoffed at that idea.

"I'm trying to figure out why we need to go back to the voters," Lackey said. "Is there any indication that they changed their mind? I don't think so.

California hasn't executed anyone since 2006, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor because of legal challenges to its lethal injection method.

Since California's last execution, its death row population has grown to house one of every four condemned inmates in the United States.

Newsom "is usurping the express will of California voters and substituting his personal preferences via this hasty and ill-considered moratorium on the death penalty," said Michele Hanisee, president of the Association of Deputy (Los Angeles County) District Attorneys.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, applauded Newsom's decision.

"As a career law enforcement official, I have opposed the death penalty because it is immoral, discriminatory, ineffective, and a gross misuse of taxpayer dollars," she said in a statement.

While the governor's move is certain to be challenged in court, aides say his power to grant reprieves is written into the state Constitution and that he is not altering any convictions or allowing any condemned inmate a chance at an early release.

Other governors also have enacted moratoriums. Republican Illinois Gov. George Ryan was the first in 2000 and later was followed by Pennsylvania, Washington and Oregon. Illinois ultimately outlawed executions, as did Washington.

The moratorium will last for the duration of Newsom's time in office and could be reversed by future governors.

© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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