Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision to grant a “reprieve” to 737 death row inmates rather than commutations reducing their sentences to life in prison without parole is significant for at least two immediate reasons:
That notice requirement stems from a 2011 law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, who went on to issue more commutations than any governor in history.
- If he had issued a mass commutation, the California Supreme Court would have had the authority to review his decision to determine whether he had abused his authority. He has the power to issue reprieves.
- If he commuted their sentences, Newsom would have been required to give at least a 10-day notice to district attorneys in the counties where the convictions occurred. Prosecutors in turn would have been obliged to try to contact surviving family members of victims.
The legislation was a reaction to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s decision on his last day in office to shorten the sentence of former Speaker Fabian Nunez’s son, who had been serving a 16-year sentence for manslaughter in the slaying of a San Diego State University student in 2008. Nunez’s son, Esteban, since has been released.
- At the time, Brown’s spokesman said: “Victims and their families should not be blindsided when a request is made for a sentence to be commuted. This bipartisan bill ensures ample notification and a more transparent process.”
Reprieves don’t carry the weight of a commutation. They’re generally temporary, issued when an execution in imminent.
- Ward Campbell is a retired deputy attorney general who prosecuted death penalty cases and also defended governors’ use of clemency powers: “A reprieve is a delay. It doesn’t necessarily stop any cases. The convictions are intact. A new governor could lift the reprieve.”