California Supreme Court upholds law hastening death penalty

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Sunday, August 27, 2017

The execution chamber at San Quentin Prison, the home to all male death row inmates.
Image: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

On Thursday, the California Supreme Court upheld a ballot measure, Proposition 66, approved by voters last November which speeds up the death penalty appeals process. The court, however, weakened a provision of the proposition setting a deadline for appeals.

The plaintiff in the case, former El Dorado County supervisor Ron Briggs, claimed that the proposition was unconstitutional under the California Constitution which prevents ballot measures from addressing more than one subject. The court disagreed with Briggs' claim, writing that "Proposition 66 is more focused on a single subject" than other measures upheld by the court.

The weakened portioned of the measure would have set a deadline of five years for the appeals process. The court wrote in its opinion for the case, Briggs v. Brown, that "provisions of Proposition 66 that appear to impose strict deadlines on the resolution of judicial proceedings must be deemed directive rather than mandatory" in order to prevent difficulties with the separation of powers.

The new measure moves habeas corpus review from the Supreme Court to the lower courts. Habeas corpus review allows those convicted to contest procedures from during the trial process, such as possible problems with jurors. The measure also ended public review of execution methods.

Briggs had also challenged how the proposition affects habeas corpus review, but the court ruled in favor the defendants.

Five justices, of the court's seven, signed the majority opinion. Two justices were defendants in the case as part of the Judicial Council and recused themselves, and two alternate justices were brought in from appeals courts in Santa Ana and Sacramento. The council is responsible for making policy for the state's courts.

Currently, the appeals process for death penalty cases can last for years or even decades. The ballot measure sought to speed this up. It could affect 15 or more inmates currently sitting on death row who have already completed the appeals process.

The state has not conducted any executions since 2006. A federal court imposed a moratorium on the use of California's lethal injection method in 2006 after a challenge to the methods used. This order remains in effect, so the state must first receive approval from the federal court regarding its method before it is allowed to resume executions. In January a proposal to conduct lethal injection with a single drug was rejected by a state agency.

There were 747 people on California's death row as of Thursday according to the state corrections department. The state applies the death penalty for several crimes including murder, treason against the state, train wrecking causing death, and perjury causing the execution of another. Lethal injection is one of two methods used by the state for executing inmates. The gas chamber remains an option for inmates who elect that method of execution.

While voters approved Proposition 66 last November with 51% voting yes, another ballot measure to repeal the death penalty, Proposition 62, was rejected by voters in the same election with 53% voting against.

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