CA Supreme Court at Odds on Death Penalty?

By William Vogeler, Esq. on April 24, 2019

The death penalty is alive but not doing so well at the California Supreme Court.

While voting to affirm a death penalty decision in The People v. Potts, two justices of the state supreme court distanced themselves from the majority of the court in a recent case. They called the capital punishment process an "expensive and dysfunctional system."

That's not the same as saying the death penalty is wrong, but it was a clear message that the death penalty is in trouble in California.

'Expensive and Dysfunctional'

Reuters called the dissent an "unusual denunciation." Justices Goodwin Liu and Mariano-Florentino Cuellar said their critique had nothing to do with the "morality or constitutionality of the death penalty." They expressed sympathy for the victims and families in the case. It involved the hatch-stabbing murders of an elderly couple in Hanford, California. Thomas Potts was condemned in 1998. The state supreme court decided the case two weeks after the governor declared a moratorium on executions.

"Now, 21 years later, we affirm the judgment on direct appeal, but there is more litigation to come in the form of habeas corpus petitions in state and federal courts," the concurring justices wrote. They said there are "serious challenges" in the system. "As a result, California's death penalty is an expensive and dysfunctional system that does not deliver justice or closure in a timely manner, if at all," the justices said.

'Serious Challenges'

California voters passed a ballot measure in 2016 to quicken the death penalty process, but it hasn't worked. Liu and Cuellar blamed it on a lack of resources and reforms. However, they promised to uphold death penalty sentences "when the law requires." Gov. Gavin Newsom said he has concerns about the 737 inmates on death row. California, which last executed a prisoner in 2006, has the largest population of death row inmates in the United States. Many of them, Newsom said, may be innocent. His conscience was a major factor in his decision to halt the executions, he said.

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