California Supreme Court to Hear Arguments Challenging State Application of Death Penalty

The California Supreme Court, which rarely overturns death penalty verdicts these days, tackles an issue on Wednesday that could lead to the overturning of hundreds of the state’s pending death sentences and possibly all 704 between them.

In an appeal from a Los Angeles man sentenced to death for two gang-related murders in 2004, judges took the rare step of asking both parties, as well as other interested parties, to file arguments on a Question raised by the defense: The proceedings in California, the capital cases have allowed prosecutors to circumvent state laws requiring jurors to decide, by a unanimous vote, that the evidence supports a death sentence.

In response, Gov. Gavin Newsom, who declared a moratorium on executions after taking office in 2019, became the first California CEO to file arguments challenging the state’s application of the death penalty. Several district attorneys, including those in San Francisco and Los Angeles, filed similar briefs, opposing the views of most county attorneys. Law professors and activists on both sides of the issue also weighed in.

The decision, expected within 90 days, could shape the future of capital punishment in California, which narrowly survived repeal efforts at the polls in 2012 and 2016.

The ruling could have “devastating effects on hundreds of hard-won judgments for horrific crimes,” said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which supports the death penalty, and author of a document endorsed by voters in 2016. Voting initiative to speed up executions.

Newsom’s brief, prepared by two UC Berkeley law professors, said a ruling tightening the rules for jury deliberations in death penalty cases “will reduce racial discrimination and arbitrariness in sentencing. death ”.

California, which has the nation’s largest death row, has not executed anyone since 2006, when a federal judge found the state’s lethal injection procedures were so flawed they posed a risk excessive prolonged and tortured death.

The court will hear an appeal from Donte McDaniel, who was 24 when he and a companion, Kai Harris, entered a Los Angeles apartment in April 2004 to demand money for a gang-related drug deal, according to prosecutors. Harris shot and killed two people and McDaniel shot and injured two others. Both were convicted of two murders and sentenced to death in 2009. Harris’s separate appeal is pending.

The seven-member tribunal includes five judges appointed by opponents of the death penalty – four by Governor Jerry Brown and a fifth, Martin Jenkins, by Newsom. But the court rarely finds loopholes in death verdicts: Since the start of 2020, it has upheld 22 of the 25 death sentences it had considered, all but two unanimously.

That made it even more striking when the court last summer asked opposition lawyers to file a new set of arguments in response to a question raised by McDaniel’s public defenders. This is how a jury that convicted an accused on a capital charge – such as murder in robbery, rape or kidnapping, murder of a police officer, or multiple murders – decides to impose a death sentence.

Under state laws passed in 1977 and 1978, jurors must decide whether the crime involved “aggravating factors” – for example, that the murder was gang-related, had multiple victims, was motivated by race, location. religion or nationality of the victim or was particularly “odious, atrocious or cruel”, or that the killer had committed other killings. Then they must weigh those factors against any factors in the defendant’s favor, such as mental issues and outside pressure, and decide whether the verdict should be death or life without parole.

But although the final verdict must be unanimous, jurors do not have to agree on the reasons. The court will consider whether the jurors should instead be required to conclude, unanimously, that the crime involved specific aggravating factors and, separately, that a death sentence was warranted. Both decisions should be beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard that currently applies to criminal convictions, but not to sentencing decisions.

McDaniel and the groups of defense attorneys and law professors who support him argue that the California Constitution and the state’s basic criminal law, first adopted in 1872, both give defendants the right to pronounce verdicts based on fact finding by a jury – unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt – and that the death penalty rules violate this standard.

“For 30 or 40 years we have been saying (in trial proceedings and court decisions) that the death penalty is a moral issue, not subject to (proof) beyond a reasonable doubt,” Rory Little, professor of law at UC Hastings in San Francisco and co-author of a pro-defense brief, said in an interview. “Every once in a while a court finds out it’s wrong.”

In a death penalty system “characterized by arbitrariness and discrimination”, the court “should demand the highest possible procedural protections before a jury imposes a death sentence,” said a court filing by six district attorneys, including Chesa Boudin of San Francisco and George Gascón of Los Angeles.

If the court finds the current jury proceedings invalid, it will decide whether those flaws could have affected McDaniel’s death verdict. If that were the case, he would likely be given a life sentence again without parole, as Gascón, unlike his predecessors in the country’s most populous county, will not seek the death penalty.

The bigger question is to what extent such a ruling would apply. This would likely affect other sentenced prisoners whose appeals have yet to be argued in court – around 285, according to the state attorney general’s office. Their murder convictions would remain intact, but they would be entitled to new criminal trials.

California also has nearly 420 inmates whose death sentences have been upheld by the state Supreme Court and have filed new appeals in Federal Court, though 31 of them have also been dismissed by the courts. Americans. All were convicted under the same contested jury procedures in McDaniel’s case and could argue for new criminal trials.

But courts are sometimes unwilling to apply new rulings retroactively to previous cases, even if they now consider the process unfair, said Robert Weisberg, a Stanford law professor and co-director of the school’s Criminal Justice Center.

He cited the April 2020 ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court which found that two states, Louisiana and Oregon, had violated the constitutional rights of defendants by allowing convictions by jury verdicts 11-1 or 10-2, a system the court described as a holdover from white supremacy. . Two weeks ago, the court ruled that last year’s ruling did not apply to those whose cases had already become final as of April 2020, leaving thousands of defendants convicted by non-unanimous juries.

Although the California court is not required to follow the reasoning of the High Court, Weisberg said, the state court may agree that so-called procedural rulings, changing the rules of fair trial in criminal cases, cannot not be used to challenge convictions obtained under the old rules. .

Even a far-reaching pro-defense decision in the McDonald’s case would not empty the state’s death row. A handful of district attorneys, including Boudin, Gascón, Jeff Rosen of Santa Clara County, and Tori Verber Salazar of San Joaquin County, oppose the death penalty, but most county prosecutors are prepared to seek the death penalty. death sentence. And new criminal trials in capital cases often give the same verdict as the original trials.

“I think that will change the outcome in cases where the jurors have a reasonable doubt about the penalty,” Little said of UC Hastings. “Not in the worst cases.”

Bob Egelko is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: Twitter: @BobEgelko

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