Our View: In death penalty moratorium, Gov. Newsom turns his back on voters

In fall 2016, then-Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom came to Modesto and told The Bee he personally was against the death penalty. Because people throughout California were preparing to vote on two measures affecting capital punishment, Newsom also said, in no uncertain terms, what he would do about the death penalty if someday given a chance.

“If ever I was in any position to actually be accountable,” Newsom said, “I would be accountable to the will of the voters. I would not (put) my personal opinions in the way of the public’s right to make a determination of where they want to take us, as (it) relates to the death penalty.”

A few weeks later, a majority voted against repealing the death penalty in Proposition 62, and voted in favor of fast-tracking it in Prop. 66. Newsom was elected governor last November, finally got a chance to do something about it, and on Wednesday did the opposite of what he said 2 1/2 years ago — signing an executive order halting executions, as least for now.

The governor’s lack of principle, and failure to keep his promise, is a slap in the face to survivors of heinous murders. They include loved ones of Laci Peterson and countless folks near and far who were devastated at her 2002 murder, and that of her unborn son.

Her mother, Modesto’s Sharon Rocha, had vigorously campaigned for Prop. 66 and against Prop. 62, saying, “Some crimes just warrant the death penalty.” Over the years, she has steadfastly opined that son-in-law Scott Peterson deserves to be on death row, where he awaits appeals of the death sentence jurors handed him in December 2004.

Voters here in Laci Peterson’s home county, Stanislaus, listened to her mother in 2016 and said “no” to repealing the death penalty by nearly 69 percent, among the strongest showings anywhere in California. We’ve seen other gruesome murders in these parts, landing killers like Cary Stayner on death row, although Scott Peterson often tops lists of the state’s most notorious.

So it’s disappointing that the governor lost his nerve and went back on his word.

A better approach, if he feels that strongly, would have been for Newsom to champion a new ballot initiative to end capital punishment. He would have had ample time and ability to make his case, and voters could have had their chance to weigh in, once again, on what is one of the most important matters for any electorate to decide.

Now, however, Newsom says that having the state execute death-row inmates is wrong, and he will not oversee such a punishment. Last month, Newsom told reporters he “never believed in the death penalty from a moral perspective.” And he pointed out that 164 people have been freed from death row after they were found to have been wrongly convicted.

On Wednesday he also said the death penalty system has discriminated against mentally ill defendants and people of color, has not made the state safer and has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars.

There is no question the process has flaws. Not only have wrongful convictions occurred, but the family and friends of victims of rightfully convicted murderers have received no justice. The last execution occurred more than a decade ago; executions since have been caught up in legal challenges to the state’s execution protocol.

But there is no excuse for governing by edict, just because a leader doesn’t like what voters have said.