California

Will Calif. Supreme Court make it tougher for juries to sentence killers to death?

Despite Gov. Gavin Newsom’s controversial decision to suspend executions for convicts on California’s Death Row, California juries have continued to add more murderers to the ranks in San Quentin.

Now, murder convict Don’te Lamont McDaniel, Newsom, polarizing Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon, and criminal justice reform crusaders are pushing the California Supreme Court want to toughen the standards for the state’s juries to sentence killers to death.

McDaniel, who is the Los Angeles-based defendant, was convicted of two 2004 gang-related murders in 2009.

His sentence, like hundreds of others in the Golden State, was secured without an instruction from the trial court judge to jurors that the aggravating circumstances in his case needed to be reached unanimously beyond a reasonable doubt.

Wednesday, the California Supreme Court will hear soundings from McDaniel’s legal team along with California prosecutors to determine whether the California State Constitution and Penal Code actually require juries to unanimously determine beyond a reasonable doubt disputed evidence of aggravating circumstances supports their unanimous decision to levy a death sentence.

If so, the potential shake-up in California’s criminal justice system at its most serious level would be tectonic, potentially opening the door for a considerable number of re-trials in capital cases, if not for all 704 Californians on death row.

Newsom’s involvement in the case came as an unprecedented “friend of the court” brief filed in 2020 demanding the Court raise the standard for reaching a death sentence, arguing that the process of levying the death is “infected by racism.”

At the center of the Court’s inquiry is Penal Code section 1042 and Article I, Section 16 of California’s Constitution.

The penal code section at-issue states “[i]ssues of fact shall be tried in the manner provided in Article I, Section 16 of the Constitution of this state.”

That section of the California Constitution reads: “In criminal actions in which a felony is charged, the jury shall consist of 12 persons. In criminal actions in which a misdemeanor is charged, the jury shall consist of 12 persons or a lesser number agreed on by the parties in open court.”

The case also affects its 1978 Proposition 7, which instated the special circumstances system to determine if capital cases would become death penalty-eligible.

California’s prosecutor association, in their own “friend of the court” brief, argued that a jury’s weighing of aggravating and mitigating circumstances to determine a potential death sentence is not a determination of fact.

“[T]he sentencing function is moral and normative, not factual . . . . [A] jury must be fully advised of the nature and scope of its sentencing discretion,” prosecutors argued, citing a 1986 California Supreme Court decision in People v. Rodriguez.

Prosecutors also point to language in Prop. 7 that specifically omits the jury from unanimously determining aggravating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt during the penalty phase of a capital case.

Finding a bright line theme among amicus curiae briefs supporting McDaniel – that the current death sentence procedures, established via citizen-led initiatives, should “afford no room for disagreement” – are better settled via new legislation.

They argued that the alternative system proposed to the Court by criminal justice reformers would be difficult to contemplate in a practical environment.

“Would a jury be tasked with creating a group essay of facts agreed upon beyond a reasonable doubt, authoring a narrative of how it collectively arrived upon a verdict?” the California District Attorney’s Association wrote.

“Or instead, would the prosecutor face the prospect of presenting a full description for the panel, and ask them to affix twelve signatures if they agree upon the prose?”

Alex Tavlian is the Executive Editor of The San Joaquin Valley Sun and Executive Director of Valley Future Foundation. You can reach Alex at alex.tavlian@sjvsun.com.