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Beat expertise uncovers California plan to dismantle death row

FILE - In this Aug. 16, 2016 file photo, An inmate is escorted from his cell on death row at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif., Aug. 16, 2016. AP reporting revealed Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plans to dismantle the nation’s most populated death row within two years. Hillary Clinton is crafting a domestic agenda for the start of her potential presidency that is centered on three policy priorities, each with some Republican support: a public works package that emphasizes job creation, a criminal justice overhaul, and immigration legislation, with the promise of quick executive action if necessary because of congressional opposition. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

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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.

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