The 737 inmates on the largest death row in the United States are getting a reprieve from the California governor, who plans to sign an executive order placing a moratorium on executions.
Gavin Newsom is also withdrawing the lethal injection regulations that death penalty opponents already have tied up in courts.
“The intentional killing of another person is wrong and as governor, I will not oversee the execution of any individual,” he said in prepared remarks.
Mr Newsom called the death penalty “a failure” that “has discriminated against defendants who are mentally ill, black and brown, or can’t afford expensive legal representation”.
He also said innocent people had been wrongly convicted and sometimes put to death.
California has not executed anyone since 2006, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor.
And although voters in 2016 narrowly approved a ballot measure to speed up the punishment, no condemned inmate faced imminent execution.
Since California’s last execution, its death row population has grown to house one of every four condemned inmates in the United States.
They include Scott Peterson, whose trial for killing his wife Laci riveted the country, and Richard Davis, who kidnapped 12-year-old Polly Klaas during a slumber party and strangled her.
Mr Newsom “is usurping the express will of California voters and substituting his personal preferences via this hasty and ill-considered moratorium on the death penalty”, said Michele Hanisee, president of the Association of Deputy (Los Angeles County) District Attorneys.
While the governor’s move is certain to be challenged in court, aides say his power to grant reprieves is written into the state constitution and that he is not altering any convictions or allowing any condemned inmate a chance at an early release.
A governor needs approval from the state Supreme Court to pardon or commute the sentence of anyone twice convicted of a felony, and the justices last year blocked several clemency requests by former governor Jerry Brown that did not involve condemned inmates.
Other governors also have enacted moratoriums. Republican Illinois Governor George Ryan was the first in 2000 and was later followed by Pennsylvania, Washington and Oregon. Illinois ultimately outlawed executions, as did Washington.
Mr Newsom said the death penalty was not a deterrent, wasted taxpayer dollars and was flawed because it is “irreversible and irreparable in the event of human error”.
More than six in 10 condemned California inmates are minorities, which his office cited as proof of racial disparities in who is sentenced to die.
Since 1973, five California inmates who were sentenced to death were later exonerated, his office said.
Mr Brown also opposed the death penalty, but his administration moved to restart executions after voters acted in 2016 to allow the use of a single lethal injection and speed up appeals.
His administration’s regulations are stalled by challenges in both state and federal court, but those lawsuits may be halted now that Mr Newsom is officially withdrawing the regulations.
Seventy-nine condemned California inmates have died of natural causes since the state reinstated capital punishment in 1978. Another 26 committed suicide. California has executed 13 inmates, while two were executed in other states.
Mr Newsom’s office said 25 condemned inmates have exhausted all of their appeals and could have faced execution if the courts approved the state’s new lethal injection method.