What could have been a blockbuster decision turned into a relatively routine Supreme Court affirmance of the death sentence in People v. McDaniel for a 2004 double murder in Los Angeles.  (If any death penalty opinions can be considered routine.)  A second jury returned the death verdict after a first jury hung on the penalty issue.

When it asked for supplemental briefing in the appeal last year, the court raised expectations that it might reconsider past precedent and find two systemic flaws in California’s death penalty scheme, a ruling that could have upended many, if not all, of the capital sentences in the state.  But the court’s unanimous opinion by Justice Goodwin Liu concludes that “state law as it stands does not require jury unanimity on factually disputed aggravating circumstances or application of the reasonable doubt standard to the ultimate penalty determination.”

However, just because current state law doesn’t mandate unanimity and a reasonable doubt standard doesn’t mean that changing the law wouldn’t be a positive step.  The court cites the Attorney General’s statement that “ ‘statutory reforms to impose those requirements deserve serious consideration, particularly in light of the important policy concerns that McDaniel and his amici have raised.’ ”

Justice Liu also writes a 30-page concurring opinion, questioning the court’s jurisprudence on a federal constitutional issue.  He says “[t]here is a serious question whether our capital sentencing scheme is unconstitutional in light of Apprendi [v. New Jersey (2000) 530 U.S. 466], and I have come to believe the issue merits reexamination by this court and other responsible officials.”  Liu suggests that, contrary to current California law, the Sixth Amendment requires a penalty-phase jury to find an aggravating factor beyond a reasonable doubt.  He considers the issue not ripe for decision in today’s case because “McDaniel raises some Sixth Amendment and Apprendi arguments, but this portion of his briefing focuses primarily on his state law claims.”

The court also rejects a number of other appellate arguments, including a Batson/Wheeler claim of racially discriminatory jury selection and an argument that evidence was seized during an illegal detention.  It’s significant that Justice Liu didn’t think there was Batson/Wheeler error because he is particularly sensitive to that issue.  (See, e.g., here.)


Death penalty appeal on the June calendar could be a momentous one

Claiming “racial discrimination infects the administration of California’s death penalty,” Governor submits amicus brief supporting defendant’s appeal

LA Times urges Supreme Court to use McDaniel appeal to end state’s death penalty

“California Supreme Court to hear arguments challenging application of state’s death penalty”

“Pending case could reshape death penalty in California”