Buried in hundreds of pages of California Gov. Gavin Newsom's budget were two paragraphs under the heading Repurpose Condemned Housing. It’s an opaque label that would be easy to read past. But it caught the eye of Sacramento-based state government reporter Don Thompson, who after two decades covering the corrections department knows as much about the agency as any California reporter.
Thompson quickly deciphered that Newsom — an ardent opponent of capital punishment who early in his term placed a moratorium on executions — was seeking $1.5 million in his $286 billion budget for a consultant to find new uses for California’s death row. A longtime source urged Thompson to ask for details.
Over the course of three days, Thompson convinced corrections officials to share, on the record, that Newsom was planning to dismantle the nation’s most populated death row and move all the nearly 700 condemned inmates into regular prison populations at maximum-security facilities within two years.
Thompson’s APNewsAlert and story appeared on the wire about 90 minutes before Newsom had a scheduled appearance — where the first question from reporters was about the AP story. Newsom was caught off guard and initially said he wasn’t sure what the reporter was asking about. But he went on to voice strong opposition to the death penalty; Thompson quickly added that to his story.
Thompson’s scoop was among the top 10 most-read stories on AP News and played widely, including the Orange County Register and San Diego Union-Tribune; both papers gaving Thompson a rare front-page byline. The Los Angeles Times credited AP in its matching story and Thompson was interviewed by Los Angeles public radio.