The Supreme Court yesterday affirmed the death sentence in People v. Morelos for a 1992 torture and murder in San Jose. The defendant represented himself at a bench trial and admitted to the crimes on the witness stand. The court did require the superior court to reevaluate certain sentence enhancements under new legislation, but that will not affect the death penalty.
The court was not unanimous, with the validity of the defendant’s jury waiver being the point of contention. The majority opinion by Justice Joshua Groban holds “the relevant circumstances demonstrate that Morelos’s waiver was voluntary, knowing, and intelligent.” Justice Goodwin Liu disagreed, writing that the majority “once again lowers the bar for a valid waiver.”
The court also rejected the argument that the superior court improperly allowed the defendant to represent himself. Among other things, the defendant’s appellate counsel unsuccessfully challenged prior California Supreme Court precedent, asserting that the federal constitutional right to self-representation shouldn’t apply in capital cases. The court also disagreed with counsel’s claim that the defendant effectively pleaded guilty in a death penalty case, which is statutorily prohibited.
There was some minor sniping between the majority and the dissent. Justice Liu said, “One is left to wonder what set of circumstances, in light of the speculative inferences this court is willing to draw, could fall below the minimum required to show a knowing and intelligent waiver.” The majority opinion responded “it is the dissent who speculates here, suggesting that the prosecutor somehow pressured Morelos into waiving a jury” and says, “While the dissent asserts that this is not the intended suggestion [citation], it nonetheless goes to great lengths to emphasize that the prosecutor ‘drove,’ ‘pursued,’ was ‘insistent in,’ was ‘intent on,’ ‘pushed,’ and was ‘determined’ to have a court trial. [Citation.] We can only assume these word choices were intentional.”