When the California Supreme Court, late last month, upheld a state law that does not require a unanimous jury vote when sentencing a defendant to death, it not only disappointed many criminal justice advocates it surprised them as well.
The Court issued its ruling in response to an appeal by Don’te LaMont, who argued that his death sentence violated state laws because the jury did not agree unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt on the aggravating circumstances that justified his sentence.
The appeal argued that racism pervades deliberations on aggravating circumstances, citing a study that found when the victim was white, the defendant was more likely to be sentenced to death than when the victim was a person of color. The appellant also maintained that “the prosecutor engaged in discrimination during the process of jury selection” by excluding black jurors, who it argued are less likely to vote for a death sentence.
That the Court had agreed to hear the appeal gave reason for hope that the flaw in the system would be rectified. Six current and former district attorneys, including George Gascón (LA), Chesa Boudin (San Francisco), Gil Garcetti (former LA DA), Jeffrey Rosen (Santa Clara), Tori Verber Salazar (San Joaquin), and Diana Becton (Contra Costa), filed amicus briefs, as did Gov. Gavin Newsom, which no other sitting California governor has done before.
“We are disappointed the Court didn’t take this step to address one of the many serious flaws in California’s capital punishment system,” Death Penalty Focus Board Chair Sarah Sanger stated. “The Court could have taken a big step toward confronting a deeply biased death penalty system. We share the concerns voiced by Justice Liu in his separate opinion in which he said he believes the state’s death penalty is unconstitutional under the federal constitutional standard articulated in Apprendi vs. New Jersey, but that issue was not ‘before the court’ in the present case.
“The Court is leaving intact a system that is fundamentally flawed because it discriminates against people of color and those with serious impairments, risks the execution of the innocent, and wastes an enormous amount of taxpayer money.”
California is unique in requiring a unanimous vote beyond a reasonable doubt in the guilt phase of a capital trial but not in the penalty phase.