California Gov. Gavin Newsom has full legal authority to spare the lives of death row inmates during his term in office, but he could be challenged for discarding the state's death penalty protocol and shuttering the execution chamber, legal analysts said Wednesday.
Newsom signed an executive order Wednesday granting reprieves to the 737 inmates on California's death row. He also said he would withdraw a single-drug protocol for executions and shut down the execution chamber at San Quentin.
The University of California, Berkeley law professor Elisabeth Semel, who directs a death penalty clinic, said Newsom was legally entitled to grant the reprieves.
"Absolutely, without a doubt," she said. "The governor of the state of California has the power to grant reprieves. Period. Full stop."
But she said it "remains to be seen" whether his decision to withdraw the protocol and shut down the execution chamber might be vulnerable in a lawsuit.
"The governor understands that may be a complicated legal question, but he is prepared if somebody wants to sue him," she said. "He is prepared to face that lawsuit."
She said there were "serious problems" with the protocol, and she believed Newsom had the right to say he was not prepared to defend it.
Kent S. Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, agreed that Newsom could grant reprieves but said the state is required to maintain a protocol and a death chamber under Proposition 66, the successful 2016 ballot measure intended to speed up executions.
"He is just flagrantly violating the law," said Scheidegger, the primary author of Prop. 66.
That measure requires the state to be ready to execute inmates, he said.