California’s Top Court Declines to Overhaul Death Penalty

Posted

SAN FRANCISCO — The California Supreme Court on Thursday decided to leave the state’s death penalty law intact, refusing an entreaty from Gov. Gavin Newsom that would have overturned scores of death sentences.

In a unanimous decision, the state’s highest court said there was no legal support for overhauling the law, as opponents of capital punishment urged. In fact, the court said, some of the precedents cited by defense lawyers actually undercut their position.

Defense lawyers had argued the state’s capital punishment law was unconstitutional because it failed to require jurors to unanimously agree beyond a reasonable doubt on the reasons why a defendant should be sentenced to death instead of life without possibility of parole.

A decision to impose the death penalty also should be made beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard now used in deciding guilt, the lawyers said.

If the court had agreed, hundreds if not all death sentences would have had to be overturned because such decisions generally apply retroactively.

Justice Goodwin Liu, who wrote the ruling, said the cases cited by defense attorneys did not support their position. “If anything,” he said, they suggested “the ultimate penalty determination is entirely within the discretion of the jury.”

The arguments came in an appeal brought by condemned inmate Don’te Lamont McDaniel, convicted of killing two people in 2004 and wounding two witnesses in a drug dispute at South Los Angeles’ Nickerson Gardens public housing project. The deceased were 33-year-old George Brooks and Brooks’ 52-year-old cousin, Annette Anderson.

The court instead upheld his death sentence Thursday.

In written arguments to the court, Newsom, a Democrat, assailed the death penalty as racist and cited study after study that found the system discriminated against Black and Latino defendants. He did not ask the court to abolish the death penalty, a move that voters have rejected, but to change how it was enforced.

California has more than 700 inmates on death row, but legal challenges have stymied executions. Only 13 inmates have been executed since 1992, and Newsom imposed a moratorium on executions during his time in office.