SAN QUENTIN (KPIX 5) – The California Supreme Court began hearing arguments Wednesday in Donte McDaniel’s death sentence appeal, a case that legal experts say could impact the future of capital punishment in the state.
McDaniel’s case could make it harder for prosecutors to put people on death row in California and almost all inmates could be affected.
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One of 700 convicted inmates in San Quentin, McDaniel was convicted of two murders in 2004, following a gang-related drug case when he was 24.
The inmate’s attorneys focus on what are known as “aggravating factors,” 22 different things such as gang activity, whether the perpetrator was waiting, or whether the crime was particularly heinous or cruel.
Lara Bazelon, a law professor at the University of San Francisco, said current law requires jurors to agree there was an aggravating factor, not a specific factor.
“Lawyers say jurors must agree on the specific aggravating factors that cause them to die beyond a reasonable doubt and the law does not require them to do so now,” Bazelon told KPIX 5.
This is what the governor and public defenders want to change, making the death penalty more difficult to impose.
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Bazelon believes the composition of the tribunal at the moment means that this change has a real chance of happening.
“We now have ground that slopes to the left. There are people appointed by Jerry Brown on this tribunal. There are people named by Gavin Newsom on this tribunal, ”the professor said. “And litigants might think there will be a more receptive audience to attacks on the constitutionality of the death penalty.”
Bazelon said she doesn’t necessarily believe the California Supreme Court’s ruling will be retroactive and apply to anyone already on death row.
“They might say ‘yes there is a problem with this death sentence’ but everyone who came before this decision is not benefiting from it, they are stuck with their death sentence,” she said. “It’s just going forward prospectively, the defendants will benefit.”
The professor said it was really unclear what the court would do to make any changes retroactive.
Ultimately, district attorneys would decide whether to retry the sentencing phase in all of these convictions. But many ADs sided with the governor in favor of this change.
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A decision from the California Supreme Court is expected within the next three to six months.