March 14, 2019 3:18 pm

How a 1937 mafia hit and wrongful conviction led Gov. Gavin Newsom to suspend death penalty in California

WATCH ABOVE: California halts death penalty executions

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California Gov. Gavin Newsom was about 10 years old when he met a man wrongfully convicted of murder, an encounter that educated him about injustice and laid the groundwork for his decision to place a moratorium on executions this week.

“This has been a 40-year journey for me,” Newsom said Wednesday, minutes after signing the executive order to grant reprieve to 737 death row inmates. “This is a journey that began with an introduction of an elderly man named Pete Pianezzi.”

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Pianezzi was convicted and given two life sentences in the 1937 double murder of a gambler and bystander in Los Angeles. He was spared the death sentence by a single juror and would, more than 40 years later, be declared innocent after a government informant admitted Pianezzi had been set up by the mob.

It was a case that touched Newsom’s father and grandfather as well as former Govs. Pat and Jerry Brown, the father-son duo who were close friends of the Newsoms. It was Jerry Brown who, during his first two terms in office, declared Pianezzi’s innocence with a pardon in 1981.

Newsom, 51, first met Pianezzi when he was 10 or 11 years old, he said Wednesday. Pianezzi was 90 years old when he died in 1992.

“I was a young man learning that life story and I also got to know Pete up until his dying days,” Newsom said. “I also had the opportunity, in that spirit, to start thinking and to reflect on the death penalty, its purpose and on the passion that arises when we debate the issue.”

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Newsom’s grandfather, William Newsom II, had hired Pianezzi’s wife to work for him in the 1940s and watched her take weekly visits to her husband at Folsom State Prison.

“My father was rather intrigued,” William Newsom III, Gavin Newsom’s father, told the Los Angeles Times in 1981, adding that his father was convinced of Pianezzi’s innocence.

Pianezzi was paroled in 1953 and later pardoned by Pat Brown in 1966, though the pardon was based on the notion that he had been rehabilitated, not that he was innocent. Gavin Newsom said his grandfather helped convince Brown, who he had known for decades through San Francisco political circles, to pardon Pianezzi.

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Newsom’s father later took up the cause and convinced Jerry Brown to pardon Pianezzi again, this time declaring him innocent, after several people involved admitted he had been set up. William Newsom III, a Brown appointee to the state court of appeals, knew Pianezzi socially and had long been intrigued by his case, he recalled in a 2009 oral history project available through the University of California-Berkeley.

“I became convinced by reading about it that he had been framed. Suffice to say, I was right. He had been framed,” he said. “Pete was out of jail for years and years, and had a job, was doing fine, but he couldn’t live with the idea. He was no angel, but he had never committed a murder, and that’s a big difference.”

Pianezzi had been previously convicted of robbery.

It was one of several cases the governor referenced Wednesday as he explained his reasoning in deeply personal terms for ending the death penalty in California. He cited cases like Pianezzi’s to show that the death penalty is applied unevenly and that innocent people can find themselves behind bars and even on death row.

“This is about who I am as a human being. This is about what I can or cannot do — to me this was the right thing do,” he said.

© 2019 The Canadian Press

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