California Supreme Court Hears an Appeal that Could Change Death Sentencing

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The California Supreme Court last week heard oral arguments from both sides on an appeal by a Los Angeles man who says 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.

Don’te LaMont McDaniel and a co-defendant were convicted of killing a rival gang member and an eyewitness to the attack in Los Angeles in 2004. Both men were sentenced to death.

That the Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal surprised many in the legal community because before now, the state has required a unanimous vote beyond a reasonable doubt in the guilt phase, but when it came to the penalty phase, the jury did not have to agree unanimously on individual facts or decide on a death verdict beyond a reasonable doubt.

“I am surprised because this is an issue that we have raised since the 1980s and it is routinely denied,” death penalty lawyer and DPF board member Robert M. Sanger says. “On the other hand, I am not surprised because I think it is pretty clear that unanimity is required. Other states require unanimity and California is just sloppy in this regard. We have raised this issue in every capital case at the trial level, appellate or federal, since I can remember. It really is time.”

The appeal also argues that racism pervades the 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 maintains that “the prosecutor engaged in discrimination during the process of jury selection” by excluding black jurors, who it argues are less likely to vote for a death sentence.

The case looms large because the Court agreed to hear it after denying so many similar appeals in the past, indicating the justices may be reconsidering the issue. Gov. Gavin Newsom filed an amicus brief, which no other sitting California governor has done before, and six current and former district attorneys, including George Gascon (LA), Chesa Boudin (San Francisco), Gil Garcetti(former LA DA) Jeffrey Rosen (Santa Clara), Tori Verber Salazar (San Joaquin), and Diana Becton (Contra Costa) have also filed an amicus brief.

Opinions differ as to whether a favorable decision would affect those on death row with pending appeals, or those who have exhausted all appeals, or would be limited to just McDaniel. It’s a case that could affect just one man, several hundred men and women, or all 704 prisoners on death row.

“I would argue that, like Furman v. Georgia, a fundamental flaw in the death process requires that all death sentences be set aside. In the particular context of unanimity, this question was addressed in Delaware when the Court there required unanimity in Rauf v. Delaware in 2016 and then held it applied to all (nine) people on death row in Powell v. Delaware later in the year. It would seem unconscionable for the California Court to apply it only to cases still not final on appeal (the usual rule). I would hope that they either make it clear in McDaniel itself or shortly thereafter that it applies to all,” Sanger says.

A decision is expected later this summer.

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