September 8, 2016
The Supreme Court today affirms the conviction and the special circumstance findings, but reverses the death sentence, in People v. Covarrubias. In an opinion by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the court concludes that a prospective juror — a correctional officer — was improperly excused based solely on his responses to a questionnaire asking about his personal views on capital punishment, which he said should be abolished. According to the court, the prospective juror’s questionnaire answers “were ambiguous, failed to provide an adequate basis to support his excusal for cause, and called for the trial court to conduct oral voir dire.” The court says that, under U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the error required automatic reversal of the death penalty.
Concerning a trial court’s obligation to sua sponte instruct on a claim-of-right defense, the court disapproves a 2006 decision by the Sixth District Court of Appeal and agrees with a 2014 Third District opinion.
In the most recent 10 death penalty appeals, all decided in the last 10 weeks, and including today’s opinion, the court has reversed 6 death sentences. (Besides today’s case, see here, here, here, here, and here.) Except for the 4-3 decision in People v. Grimes, all 10 decisions have been unanimous regarding the death penalty.
[This post has been updated.]