SAN QUENTIN (KPIX 5) — The California Supreme Court began hearing arguments Wednesday in the death penalty appeal of Donte McDaniel, a case that legal experts say could impact the future of capital punishment in the state.
McDaniel’s case could make it harder for prosecutors to put people on California’s death row and nearly every inmate could be affected.
One of 700 condemned inmates at San Quentin, McDaniel was convicted of two murders in 2004, following a gang-related drug deal when he was 24-years-old.
The inmate’s lawyers are focusing on what are called “aggravating factors,” 22 different things such as gang activity, was the perpetrator lying in wait, or was the crime especially heinous or cruel.
Lara Bazelon, a law professor at the University of San Francisco, said that current law requires jurors agree that there was an aggravating factor, not on a specific one.
“The lawyers are saying that the jurors need to agree on the specific aggravating factors that lead them to find death beyond a reasonable doubt and the law doesn’t require that they do that right now,” Bazelon told KPIX 5.
That’s what the governor and public defenders want changed, thus making the death penalty more difficult to impose.
Bazelon believes the makeup of the court right now means this change has a real chance of happening.
“We now have a court that is tilted to the left. There are Jerry Brown appointees on this court. There are Gavin Newsom appointees on this court,” the professor said. “And there may be some thinking by the litigants that there’s going to be a more receptive audience to attacks on the constitutionality of the death penalty.”
Bazelon said she doesn’t necessarily believe the California Supreme Court’s ruling would be retroactive and apply to everyone who’s already on death row.
“They could say ‘yes, there’s a problem with this death sentence’ but everyone else who came before this ruling doesn’t get the benefit of it, they’re stuck with their death sentences,” she said. “It’s just moving forward prospectively, defendants will get the benefit.”
The professor said it’s really unclear what the court will do in terms of making any change retroactive.
Ultimately district attorneys would decide whether to retry the sentencing phase in all these convictions. But many DAs have sided with the governor, in favor of this change.
A ruling from the California Supreme Court should be expected in the next three to six months.