January 21, 2016

Death penalty affirmed despite disagreement about unrelated-murder evidence

In People v. Johnson, the Supreme Court today affirms the death penalty for the lying-in-wait murder of an Orange County white supremacist gang member.  The affirmance is unanimous, but there is a disagreement about the relevancy in the penalty phase of certain victim impact testimony.

In an opinion by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the majority finds no error in admitting the testimony of the mother of a victim of a murder other than the murder for which the defendant was convicted.  But Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, joined by Justices Goodwin Liu and Leondra Kruger, concludes the evidence was inadmissible under the pertinent statute.  He also reports that his research reveals that California now becomes “the only jurisdiction in the country to expand the scope of aggravating evidence in a capital trial to this extent.”  It is a concurring opinion, however, because the three justices believe the error was harmless.

The court overrules its own 1985 decision on victim impact testimony and also disapproves a 1984 decision of the Second District, Division Four, Court of Appeal on that same subject.  The court agrees with a 2003 Fourth District, Division One, Court of Appeal opinion about the constitutionality of the current lying-in-wait special circumstance, which was adopted by the voters in 2000.

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