August 24, 2015

Supreme Court unanimously affirms two death sentences, rejects renewed attack on death penalty based on delay

The Supreme Court today affirms two death penalty judgments, in People v. Seumanu and People v. Williams.

The opinion in Seumanu is of particular interest because it addresses and revisits at some length an argument, rejected by the court before but adopted last year by a federal district court, that delay in implementing the state’s death penalty law renders the law unconstitutional.  The appeal of the federal case will be argued before the Ninth Circuit next week, but the Supreme Court is not waiting.  Rather, it accepted supplemental briefing on the issue and today weighs in, to a limited extent.

In a unanimous opinion written by Justice Kathryn Werdegar (and with Second District, Division Seven, Court of Appeal Presiding Justice Dennis Perluss sitting pro tem in place of Justice Carol Corrigan), the court does not address the viability in general of a claim that systemic delay violates the Eighth Amendment bar against “cruel and unusual punishment,” but concludes that, if such a claim is valid, “it has not been proved here” and that the claim is more appropriately presented in a habeas corpus proceeding.  The court says that the result would be different “were the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to ask all capital inmates who have exhausted their appeals to draw straws or roll dice to determine who would be the first in line for execution,” but it finds that “allowing each case the necessary time, based on its individual facts and circumstances, to permit this court’s careful examination of the claims raised is the opposite of a system of random and arbitrary review.”

The Williams opinion, authored by Justice Corrigan, is also unanimous.

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