The Supreme Court today issues two opinions, affirming a death sentence in one and, in another, giving some relief to a defendant who had been sentenced to life without parole under the felony-murder doctrine.

In People v. Banks, the court’s unanimous opinion by Justice Kathryn Werdegar holds there is no substantial evidence to support a special circumstance finding that led to a life-without-parole sentence.  The defendant was a getaway driver for an armed robbery in which someone else shot a robbery victim.  Even though the prosecution did not seek the death penalty against the defendant, the court interprets California’s statute (enacted by Proposition 115 in 1990) — which provides the special circumstances under which a defendant can be sentenced to death or, at a minimum, life without parole — as being limited by federal constitutional constraints placed on sentencing felony-murder participants to death.  After examining US Supreme Court precedent, the state high court concludes the defendant “is statutorily ineligible for life imprisonment without parole” because he did not meet what it considers to be the constitutional test:  “felony-murder participants [are] eligible for death only when their involvement is substantial and they demonstrate a reckless indifference to the grave risk of death created by their actions.”  The opinion reverses the Second District, Division Two, Court of Appeal.

This is the second time in the last two months that the court has reversed a factual finding based on a lack of substantial evidence.

In a unanimous opinion written by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the court also today affirms a death sentence in People v. Johnson.  The defendant was sentenced to death for two murders, but the court affirms just one, reversing one death sentence because it was imposed for a second degree murder.  The court also sets aside a kidnap-murder special circumstance finding because of instructional error.  Among other things, the court — in a lengthy analysis — rejects the defendant’s Batson claim that the peremptory removal of three African-American prospective jurors was racially motivated, a hot-button issue at the court.