LOS ANGELES — Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a moratorium on capital punishment on Wednesday, granting a temporary reprieve for the 737 inmates on the state’s death row, the largest in the Western Hemisphere.
The move is highly symbolic because legal challenges have already stalled executions in California; the last one was in 2006. But death penalty opponents hope that because of California’s size and political importance, the governor’s action will give new urgency to efforts to end executions in other states as popular support for the death penalty wanes.
Mr. Newsom, a longtime opponent of capital punishment, cited its high cost, racial disparities in its application and wrongful convictions, and questioned whether society has the right to take a life.
“I know people think eye for eye, but if you rape, we don’t rape,” he said. “And I think if someone kills, we don’t kill. We’re better than that.”
He continued, “I cannot sign off on executing hundreds and hundreds of human beings, knowing — knowing — that among them will be innocent human beings.”
Supporters of capital punishment said the move went against the will of the state’s residents. California voters have rejected an initiative to abolish the death penalty and in 2016, they narrowly approved Proposition 66 to help speed it up.
“I think this would be a bold step and I think he’s got to be aware of the political downside,” said Michael D. Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, an organization in Sacramento that favors the death penalty and helped draft the ballot proposition, speaking before the governor’s announcement. “Voters have had multiple opportunities in California over three decades to abandon the death penalty and they’ve shut them down at every chance.”
Former Gov. Jerry Brown, a liberal who made criminal justice reform in California a hallmark of his legacy, resisted calls to commute California’s death sentences before he left office in January.
His refusal was in some ways a political gift to Mr. Newsom, giving him the opportunity to take a high-profile position with national significance early in his administration. In 2004, Mr. Newsom took a similar tack as mayor of San Francisco, when he legalized gay marriage in the city at a time when even the Democratic Party opposed it.
With capital punishment, Mr. Newsom is not at the vanguard of the opposition movement. The death penalty has been on the decline in America for two decades. But it has become a defining issue for him, widening the dividing line between California and the policies of President Trump, who has spoken out in favor of the death penalty, even for drug dealers.
After the news of Mr. Newsom’s decision broke, Mr. Trump said on Twitter: “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!”
Speaking several hours later, Mr. Newsom said he had met with families of victims and they had expressed passionate but conflicting views on capital punishment. But the governor made it clear that his decision came down to his own conscience, prodded by impending decisions such as whether to support the state’s lethal injection protocol.
An executive order Mr. Newsom signed on Wednesday does three things: grants reprieves to the inmates currently on death row — they will still be under a death sentence, but not at risk of execution; closes the execution chamber at San Quentin prison; and withdraws the state’s lethal injection protocol, the formally approved procedure for carrying out executions.
“Three out of four nations in the world know better and are doing better,” Mr. Newsom said. “They’ve abolished the death penalty. It’s time California join those ranks.”
Supporters of the death penalty predicted legal challenges to any moratorium. Michele Hanisee, the president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys in Los Angeles said that reprieves for condemned inmates would be, “in effect, invalidating the law” that California voters have repeatedly affirmed, despite the liberal values that dominate the state.
“I think it surprises me too, sometimes,” she said. “California is liberal, I think we all know that. We have Hollywood, and the music industry, which I think affects people’s thinking. I think with the death penalty it comes down to specifics of cases. We have serial killers and lots of bad people in California.”
Mr. Newsom said voters were well aware that he opposed capital punishment when they elected him. In 2012, he was the only statewide official to publicly support a ballot initiative to repeal it, and he has said in interviews that the question of what he would do if confronted with the possibility of an execution on his watch weighed heavily on him.
Mr. Newsom’s move will surely be applauded by liberal activists, members of his own party and many conservatives, some of whom have come to see the death penalty as exorbitantly costly and have argued against it on economic grounds.
Three other governors — in Oregon, Colorado and Pennsylvania — have issued moratoriums on the death penalty. In other states, the practice has been abolished by either legislatures or courts. The latest was Washington, which last year became the 20th state to end capital punishment when the State Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional, after a moratorium issued by the governor.
“A moratorium in California has enormous symbolic value,” said Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “It’s part of the momentum we are seeing.”
But in 2016, Californians doubled down on the death penalty, approving a measure that streamlined the appeals process, which has typically taken about 25 years in California for condemned prisoners. The initiative, which was backed by many law enforcement officials and prosecutors, passed with 51 percent of the vote, belying California’s national image as place where politics was steadily moving to the left. It was approved at the same time that voters legalized marijuana.
Even without a moratorium, capital punishment in California has stalled in the courts because of challenges to the state’s use of a three-drug protocol, which can cause painful deaths. New death sentences have been on the wane.
But the endurance of the death penalty in California has acted as a check on the national movement against capital punishment, said Shilpi Agarwal, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union in San Francisco who is involved in the lethal injection litigation.
“It is a state people look to to set the tone for national policy,” she said. “The fact that so many states have abolished the death penalty — but California hasn’t — has given people cover for this narrative that people are still supportive the death penalty.”
In an interview last fall during his campaign for governor, Mr. Newsom cited his Irish Catholic, Jesuit background, saying he opposed capital punishment for “moral, ethical and economic reasons.”
He said he had been reading former President Bill Clinton’s memoir, highlighting passages about how he faced the death penalty as governor of Arkansas. Asked if he would sign a death warrant if a planned execution reached his office, he said then, “I’m not prepared to answer that question, because I’m not prepared to answer the question. And in that preparation comes a lot of soul searching.”
California governors are limited in their power to commute sentences, but they do have the power to issue temporary reprieves. A moratorium, said Stefanie Faucher of the 8th Amendment Project, an organization that opposes capital punishment, is “functionally a series of reprieves.”
In order to commute death sentences to life in prison for death row inmates that have a prior felony, which many do, Mr. Newsom would need approval from the California Supreme Court.
California, which reinstated the death penalty in 1978, has 737 inmates on death row in San Quentin prison, about a quarter of the total number of death row inmates in the United States. But only 13 executions have been carried out since 1978. The last one, in 2006, was of Clarence Ray Allen, who was executed 23 years after his conviction for hiring someone to carry out three murders.
Opponents of the death penalty, including Mr. Newsom, have long argued that the practice is rife with racial disparities and is not justified by the high cost to state taxpayers. One study, in 2011, found that California pays $184 million a year to sustain capital punishment — or close to an accumulated $5 billion since the practice was reinstituted in 1978.
In February, Mr. Newsom intervened in a high-profile death row case that for years activists have claimed was a prime example of racial injustice.
Kevin Cooper, a black man who was convicted of four brutal murders by stabbing in 1983, has long maintained his innocence. His supporters have put forward evidence that he was framed by San Bernardino officers. Mr. Newsom ordered DNA testing in the case, something that state officials had refused to do in the past.
The possibility of wrongful convictions — nationally, more than 150 people on death row have been exonerated since the mid-1970s, according to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty — has also energized the opposition movement, around the country and in California.
Last April in California, a man who had been on death row for 25 years for murdering a young girl, a former farmworker named Vicente Figueroa Benavides, was freed after a court determined that testimony given at his trial was false.
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