April 17, 2017

Supreme Court affirms eight-year-old death sentence despite reversal of one special circumstances finding

The Supreme Court today upholds the death penalty in People v. Becerrada for the murder of a woman who was pressing a rape charge against the defendant.  The court’s unanimous opinion by Justice Ming Chin reverses one of three special circumstances findings — the one for lying in wait — but otherwise affirms the judgment, concluding there was “‘no reasonable possibility'” that the erroneous lying-in-wait finding affected the jury’s penalty phase verdict.

The judgment in Becerrada is only a little over eight years old.  “Only” is accurate because the case is at the short end of the temporal spectrum for deciding automatic, direct appeals in death penalty cases.  The court has in the past issued opinions eight years after judgment — and even just six years after judgment — but the norm is considerably longer.  More typical is the last death penalty decision before Becerrada, which was filed more than 15 years after judgment, or the last argued automatic appeal — heard on the March calendar — which is from an 18-year-old judgment.  This gives an idea of how death penalty appeals would swamp the Supreme Court if the court rejects the pending challenge to the five-year deadline that Proposition 66 imposes.

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