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California high court upholds death sentence in a precedent-setting case

A death row inmate’s hopes were dashed Thursday after the California Supreme Court ruled that unanimity and reasonable doubt concepts do not apply to the death penalty phase of sentencing.

(CN) — The California Supreme Court upheld a death sentence Thursday that establishes precedent about whether jury unanimity and reasonable doubt standards are intertwined in California sentencing law.

“We have previously held that jury unanimity on the existence of aggravating circumstances is not required under the state constitution,” wrote Justice Goodwin Liu on behalf of the unanimous court. 

Later in the opinion, Liu discussed whether reasonable doubt instructions play a role for juries when finding the death penalty is warranted. 

“The authorities cited by McDaniel and amici suggest that the ultimate penalty determination is entirely within the discretion of the jury, without any preference for either of the two available punishments, not necessarily that the jury may choose the death penalty only if it believes the punishment is warranted beyond a reasonable doubt,” he wrote. 

The affirmation of the death penalty for Don’te McDaniel, who along with his co-defendant Kai Harris were convicted of two gang-related murders in 2008. In the initial trial, the jury deadlocked over whether the death penalty was warranted. Later, the court impaneled a new jury during the sentencing phase and unanimously found the death penalty was warranted after four days of deliberation. 

In California, death sentences are automatically appealed to the state supreme court and in the present case, McDaniel’s attorneys argued the deadlocked jury indicated both a lack of unanimity and some reasonable doubt issues that the court was required to consider. 

The lawyers also argued those concepts are intertwined and as such, the justices should vacate McDaniel’s death penalty sentence. 

"Juries control the penalty with their verdict, and in People v. Hall we see exactly that — the jury right is being applied to a normative issue of whether someone should live or should die. And it’s extremely difficult to reconcile that the constitutional protection of unanimity applies but the constitutional protection of reasonable doubt does not,” said Elias Batchelder, McDaniel’s attorney during oral arguments held in June.

During the hearing, Justice Liu said Batchelder’s argument was a novel legal theory that appeared unsupported by case law, but deserved consideration on its merits. 

“We have novel issues that come before this court all the time,” Liu said, asking whether there are any past cases other than Hall that reversed a death penalty sentence based on the absence of reasonable doubt. 

The attorney conceded the lack of case law but argued the merits should be considered independent of precedent. 

But that absence of precedent likely doomed the case as evidence by Thursday’s decision. 

“Contrary to McDaniel’s contention, Cancino and Perry neither hold nor suggest there is a constitutional requirement that a jury make the capital penalty determination using a reasonable doubt standard,” Liu wrote. 

California currently has 703 death row inmates, and a decision in McDaniel’s favor would have cast doubt on the constitutionality of at least some if not all of their sentences.

The state has not executed anyone since 2006, after U.S. District Judge Jeremey Fogel halted all executions amid concerns that those being put to death experienced excessive pain under the state's three-drug protocol.

Governor Gavin Newsom, who declared a death penalty moratorium in 2019, filed a legal brief in the case urging the court to require both unanimity and proof beyond a reasonable doubt to prevent racial bias from tainting the deliberative process.

The court's decision arrives amid dwindling support for the death penalty in California.

While the death penalty barely escaped repeal efforts in 2012 and 2016, a recent poll by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies and the Los Angeles Times found 44% of voters would vote to rescind the law in 2022, 35% would vote to keep it and 21% were undecided.

The death penalty fares better in the Pew Research Center’s nationwide poll released in June, with 60% of 5,109 American adults surveyed supporting the death penalty as a punishment for murder, including 27% in strong favor. Roughly 39% are opposed to the death penalty, with 15% strongly opposed.

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