Death row reprieve by Newsom praised, panned and could face legal challenges ahead

The decision by Gov. Gavin Newsom to grant a sweeping reprieve from execution for all 737 inmates on the state’s death row, shutter the execution chamber and discard the state’s capital punishment protocol reverberated through San Diego’s legal community Wednesday.

Prosecutors, lawyers, death penalty opponents, family members of victims killed by death row inmates —all had strong reactions to Newsom halting the state’s capital punishment apparatus.

“I'm disgusted by the justice system," said Maria Keever, whose 13-year-old son Charlie Keever was murdered along with his friend Jonathan Seller, 9, in 1993 by death row inmate Scott Erskine. A week ago she and Jonathan’s mother, Milena (Sellers) Phillips, were at the state Supreme Court for a hearing on Erskine’s appeal of his death sentence — 15 years after he was sentenced to death.

“I’ve fought for 25 years for the death penalty, and for what?,” she said. “Nothing."

Others opposed to the death penalty hailed the move as long overdue, with praise for Newsom as strong as Keever’s condemnation.

“We certainly thank and commend the governor for leadership on this because California’s death penalty system is broken beyond repair,” said David Loy, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union for San Diego and Imperial Counties. “Decades of experience show that the death penalty is unfairly applied to people of color, people with disabilities and low-income people”

Newsom’s order did not eliminate the death penalty law in the state, though legal challenges to some of the governor’s actions are likely ahead. While legal experts on both sides acknowledged granting reprieves are within the governor’s powers, there are questions about whether he could shut the San Quentin death chamber and withdraw the protocol for conducting lethal injection executions.

Those protocols have been laboriously hammered out and subject to a sustained legal challenge. It’s one reason why the state has not executed anyone since 2006.

Critics said that Newsom had swept aside voter support for the death penalty. In 2012 and again in 2016, statewide measures to abolish the death penalty lost, by four points in 2012 and six points in 2016. At the same time in 2016, voters approved a competing measure to streamlining the appeals process and speed up executions.

A SurveyUSA poll Wednesday showed support is strong. Of 600 adults surveyed, 60 percent said they strongly support the death penalty, and 26 percent were opposed. The margin of error was 6.5 percent.

At a news conference, Newsom strongly defended his action, and rejected the idea that he was defying the will of voters who refused to abolish capital punishment just two years ago.

“The law is the law and this is crystal clear: The constitution of the state of California provides the governor the ability to reprieve, the ability do this moratorium,” Newsom said Wednesday at the Capitol. “I don’t believe there is any ambiguity. My ultimate goal is to end the death penalty in California.”

The local impact is unclear. Prosecutors can continue to seek the death penalty, though that has been done infrequently in recent years by the District Attorney’s Office. Right now there is one pending death penalty case in the county against Jesse Michael Gomez, accused of killing San Diego Police Officer J.D. Guzman in 2016.

Prosecutors sought death against Carlo Mercado for the triple murder of three people at a Mission Valley mall on Christmas Eve 2013. However, in an agreement with prosecutors, he agreed to plead guilty before trial and get a sentence of life without parole in prison.

In response to questions Wednesday, the District Attorney’s Office said it was unclear how the moratorium would affect current death cases and would be reviewing it. District Attorney Summer Stephan was critical of Newsom’s decision.

“In San Diego County, we pursue the death penalty in a very limited number of cases pursuant to the law and the will of the People of the State of California who recently reaffirmed it,” she said in a statement. ”The Governor’s action, in essence, replaces the will of the People and short circuits justice for victims who permanently suffer the violent loss of their loved ones.

“Our concern remains the mothers, fathers and families, who heard a jury render a verdict that brought them a measure of justice but who have had that taken away from them."

Of the 737 inmates on death row, 38 are from San Diego County — or five percent of the total population. Some were convicted in the region’s most notorious cases, including the serial killing deaths of six San Diego women in 1990 by Cleophus Prince, and Susan Eubanks, who killed her four children in San Marcos in 1997.

In 2003, gang member Adrian Camacho shot and killed Oceanside police Officer Tony Zeppetella during a routine traffic stop. Camacho has been on death row since 2006.

“There is really nothing we can do about what the governor does,” Oceanside police spokesman Tom Bussey said Wednesday. He later added, “But he (Camacho) is not getting out. He’s going to remain in custody. … We don’t have a public safety issue as long as he is kept in jail.”

Just last month, the state Supreme Court upheld the death sentence for David Westerfield, convicted of the 2002 killing of 7-year-old Danielle van Dam. It was the first of Westerfield’s several appeals he is entitled to pursue and came 17 years after the killing. Years more of appeals lie ahead.

Elisabeth Semel, a lawyer and head of the Death Penalty Clinic at UC Berkeley, said that the reprieve does not reduce any sentences nor set any inmates free. The governor, she said, was at the start of an “education process” about how the death penalty is applied in the state. She said the death penalty in the state is plagued by racial and geographic bias — some counties send far more people to death row than others — and runs the risk of executing an innocent person.

“I think he’s trying to begin a conversation on ways in which the death penalty is deeply flawed,” she said.

The governor argued that the death penalty discriminates against defendants who are poor, mentally ill, African American or Latino. He also said he would not take part in executing prisoners knowing that many death row inmates in California and other states have been exonerated, providing proof of the nation’s flawed criminal justice system.

It was little consolation to Keever, who at age 72 said that she had “a little bit of hope” that Erskine would be executed in her lifetime.

“And now,” she said, “I've just completely lost hope."

Staff writer J. Harry Jones contributed to this report.

Twitter: @gregmoran

greg.moran@sduniontribune.com

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