California Supreme Court upholds death penalty rules

Aug 26, 2021, 1:22 PM | Updated: 1:37 pm

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California’s top court rejected an attempt to make it harder to impose the death penalty, ruling Thursday in favor of the current system where jurors need not unanimously agree on aggravating factors used to justify the punishment.

Jurors already must unanimously agree to impose a death sentence, and to do so must decide that aggravating factors outweigh mitigating circumstances.

But they do not have to unanimously agree on each specific aggravating factor, the California Supreme Court said in a 7-0 decision. Those factors include things like having multiple or prior victims, the slaying being gang-related or spurred by a victim’s race or religion, or the murder being “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel, manifesting exceptional depravity.”

The justices upheld that longstanding practice in a case that otherwise could have undermined the death sentences of the most populous state’s nearly 700 condemned prisoners.

The death penalty might be fairer if the state did make changes, Associate Justice Goodwin Liu wrote for the court.

He noted that the state attorney general’s office also agreed that such a requirement “would improve our system of capital punishment and make it even more reliable” and that state lawmakers should consider the change.

“Nevertheless, to date our Legislature and electorate have not imposed such requirements,” Liu wrote, and the court found there is no such mandate in state law or the constitution.

The justices also rejected requiring that both the death sentence and the specific aggravating circumstances be justified beyond a reasonable doubt. That level of proof is currently required for criminal convictions but not in sentencing decisions.

“I am pleased to see that the California Supreme Court has unanimously rejected a call to overturn decades of clear precedent,” said Criminal Justice Legal Foundation Legal Director Kent Scheidegger, who wrote a brief supporting the death penalty. A ruling otherwise, the foundation said, would have had “a devastating impact on hundreds of well-deserved judgments for horrible crimes.”

Defense attorneys argued that current sentencing practices in capital cases violate the constitutional requirement that verdicts be both unanimous and beyond a reasonable doubt.

Gov. Gavin Newsom was one of those seeking stricter standards when he took the unprecedented step of filing a brief arguing that current practices spur racial discrimination. The higher threshold was also supported by a minority of district attorneys including Chesa Boudin in San Francisco and George Gascón in Los Angeles.

Newsom’s brief — written by two professors at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law — tracked other critics who contend the death penalty process is inherently racist because Black people are disproportionately excluded from juries in capital cases.

But those more sweeping objections “do not bear directly on the specific state law questions before us,” Liu wrote.

Nor did the court find evidence of prosecutorial basis against Black jurors in the Los Angeles County case of Donte Lamont McDaniel, 42.

He was sentenced to death in 2009 for the murders of 33-year-old George Brooks and 52-year-old Annette Anderson and two counts of attempted murder on behalf of the Bounty Hunter Bloods street gang. The court upheld his conviction and sentence.

“It doesn’t change the fact that the death penalty system in California does discriminate against people of color, particularly Black defendants. And there’s ample data to demonstrate that,” said Elisabeth Semel, co-director of the UC Berkeley Death Penalty Clinic and co-author of Newsom’s legal brief.

Newsom spokeswoman Erin Mellon said the court “missed an opportunity to fix one of the many flaws in California’s death penalty.” Executions are irreversible and the process discriminates not only on race but against those who are poor or mentally ill, she said.

California has not executed anyone since 2006, and Newsom has imposed a moratorium while he is governor. But voters narrowly upheld the death penalty in 2012 and 2016.

Five of the seven justices were appointed by Democratic governors who oppose capital punishment. Liu was appointed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown.

Liu took the unusual step of writing not only the majority opinion, but also a separate 30-page opinion in which he argued the state’s death penalty process could be deemed unconstitutional under a different legal argument not currently before the court.

“There is a world of difference between a unanimous jury finding of an aggravating circumstance and the smorgasbord approach that our capital sentencing scheme allows,” he wrote.

He noted in the majority opinion that Colorado, New Jersey, Nebraska, and Utah all have included a reasonable doubt standard in their death penalty laws. Although that is not binding on California, he said other states’ experience shows that including reasonable doubt and jury unanimity standards can work.

Of 1,077 death sentences imposed since 1978 in California, 230 — more than 1 in 5 — have been reversed by either the California Supreme Court or a federal court, according to a March report by the Office of the State Public Defender titled “California’s Broken Death Penalty.”

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Cassidy Hutchinson, former aide to Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, arrives to testif...
Associated Press

Trump aides predicted possible Jan. 6 violence, aide says

WASHINGTON (AP) — Cassidy Hutchinson, a aide in Donald Trump’s White House, told the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection on Tuesday that she was “scared, and nervous for what could happen” ahead of the riot after conversations with Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and others. Meadows […]
12 hours ago
In this image provided by the New York State Police, Trooper Jimmy Rasaphone, right, poses for a ph...
Associated Press

Trooper crawls into drainage pipe to rescue missing dog

CONKLIN, N.Y. (AP) — A missing golden retriever named Lilah, discovered deep inside a culvert pipe in upstate New York, could not be lured out by her owner with peanut butter dog treats or cheese. In the end, State Trooper Jimmy Rasaphone decided to crawl about 15 feet (5 meters) into the pipe under a […]
12 hours ago
In this photo taken from surveillance video, Richard Cox slides down the back of a police van while...
Associated Press

Crump to represent Randy Cox, Black man hurt in police van

Prominent civil rights attorney Ben Crump said Tuesday he will lead the legal fight on behalf of Randy Cox, a Black man who was seriously injured in the back of a police van in Connecticut when the driver braked suddenly. Crump also called for a federal civil rights investigation into the treatment of Cox, 36, […]
12 hours ago
Associated Press

Anti-Black and Asian bias fuel California hate crime surge

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Hate crimes in California shot up 33% to nearly 1,800 reported incidents in 2021, the sixth highest tally on record and the highest since after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the state attorney general’s office said Tuesday. Attorney General Rob Bonta said that crimes against Black people were again the […]
12 hours ago
French President Emmanuel Macron addresses a media conference during the G7 summit at Castle Elmau ...
Associated Press

COVID: Paris court rules govt failed to stockpile face masks

PARIS (AP) — A Paris court ruled on Tuesday that the French government failed to sufficiently stock up on surgical masks at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and prevent the virus from spreading. The ruling came as the number of registered infections with coronavirus variants rises sharply. It wasn’t immediately clear if […]
12 hours ago
Associated Press

Key moments in Flint, Michigan’s lead-tainted water crisis

FLINT, Mich. (AP) — A Michigan Supreme Court order that charges related to the Flint water scandal against former Gov. Rick Snyder, his health director and seven other people must be dismissed is the latest development in the crisis that started in 2014. That was when the city began taking water from the Flint River […]
12 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

(Courtesy Condor)...
Condor Airlines

Condor Airlines shows passion for destinations from Sky Harbor with new-look aircraft

Condor Airlines brings passion to each flight and connects people to their dream destinations throughout the world.
Christina O’Haver

BE FAST to spot a stroke

Every 40 seconds—that’s how often someone has a stroke in the United States. It’s the fifth leading cause of death among Americans, with someone dying of a stroke every 3.5 minutes.
Carla Berg, MHS, Deputy Director, Public Health Services, Arizona Department of Health Services

ADHS mobile program brings COVID-19 vaccines and boosters to Arizonans

The Arizona Department of Health Services and partner agencies are providing even more widespread availability by making COVID-19 vaccines available in neighborhoods through trusted community partners.
California Supreme Court upholds death penalty rules