California

Calif. Supreme Court blocks attempt to make it harder for juries to issue death sentences

California’s top court rejected an attempt to make it harder to impose the death penalty, ruling Thursday in favor of the current system where jurors need not unanimously agree on aggravating factors used to justify the punishment.

Jurors already must unanimously agree to impose a death sentence, and to do so must decide that aggravating factors outweigh mitigating circumstances.

But they do not have to unanimously agree on each aggravating factor, the California Supreme Court said in a 7-0 decision. Those factors include things like having multiple or prior victims, the slaying being gang-related or spurred by a victim’s race or religion, or the murder being “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel, manifesting exceptional depravity.”

The justices upheld that longstanding practice in a case that otherwise could have undermined the death sentences of the most populous state’s nearly 700 condemned prisoners.

The death penalty might be fairer if the state did make changes, Associate Justice Goodwin Liu wrote for the court.

He noted that the state attorney general’s office also agreed that such a requirement “would improve our system of capital punishment and make it even more reliable” and that state lawmakers should consider the change.

“Nevertheless, to date our Legislature and electorate have not imposed such requirements,” Liu wrote, and the court found there is no such mandate in state law or the constitution.

The justices also rejected requiring that both the death sentence and the specific aggravating circumstances be justified beyond a reasonable doubt. That level of proof is currently required for criminal convictions but not in sentencing decisions.

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Staff reports from The San Joaquin Valley Sun staff.