The California Supreme Court today upheld a state law that does not require a unanimous jury vote when sentencing a defendant to death. 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 decision was disappointing because the fact the Court had even agreed to hear the appeal surprised many in the legal community and gave reason to hope this flaw in the system would be rectified. California is unique in that it requires a unanimous vote beyond a reasonable doubt in the guilt phase, but in the penalty phase, the jury does not have to agree unanimously on individual facts or decide on a death verdict beyond a reasonable doubt.
“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 Aprendi but that [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.”
McDaniel’s appeal argued 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 maintained that “the prosecutor engaged in discrimination during jury selection” by excluding black jurors, who it argued are less likely to vote for a death sentence.
The case loomed large because the Court agreed to hear it after denying so many similar appeals in the past. 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) also filed an amicus brief.