The Supreme Court today reverses the death penalty in People v. Bloom that had been imposed for the 1982 murders of the defendant’s father, stepmother, and eight-year-old stepsister in Sun Valley. The court had initially affirmed a death sentence by a divided vote (People v. Bloom (1989) 48 Cal.3d 1194), but the Ninth Circuit later granted habeas corpus relief (Bloom v. Calderon (9th Cir. 1997) 132 F.3d 1267). Today’s appeal follows the January 2001 judgment of death imposed after retrial.

The court’s unanimous opinion by Justice Leondra Kruger affirms the conviction for first-degree murder of the father, but reverses the convictions for second-degree murder of the stepmother and stepsister and also reverses the death penalty.

At trial, defense counsel conceded defendant’s responsibility for all three murders even though the defendant wanted to accept responsibility only for his father’s murder. The court concludes that by making an unauthorized, overbroad concession, “defense counsel violated [the defendant’s] Sixth Amendment right to choose the fundamental objectives of his defense under McCoy v. Louisiana (2018) 584 U.S. _ [138 S.Ct. 1500].” (Link added.)

The court rejects numerous defense arguments for greater relief, including that a retrial 18 years after the murders, during which time two mental health professionals who had examined the defendant shortly before and after the offenses had become unavailable, “critically undermined his principal defense — namely, that he lacked the mental state required for murder.”

The court is also unconvinced by the claim that the superior court should have instituted proceedings to determine whether defendant was competent to stand trial. (That argument was successful in another death penalty case last year.) But the opinion leaves for a possible future habeas corpus proceeding the issue whether defense counsel was ineffective in failing to raise doubts about his client’s competence.

The opinion notes two instances of prosecutorial misconduct, but finds both harmless.