California Death Penalty Process

The death penalty is the most serious punishment that can be imposed in a criminal case. Since there is no way to undo or reverse an execution, it is important for the state to be certain that (1) the defendant accused of a crime is guilty and (2) execution is the most appropriate penalty under the circumstances. In order to make sure that capital punishment is reserved for the most serious criminal matters, there are only limited situations in which prosecutors may seek the death penalty in California.

What Crimes Are Punishable By Death in California?

The Constitution plainly states that punishments must not be cruel or unusual. This has been interpreted to mean that the punishment must fit the crime. As a result, the death penalty is reserved for consideration in only the most serious criminal matters. Imposing the death penalty for a relatively-minor crime would clearly be a violation of a defendant’s Constitutional freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.

In California, state law permits the district attorney to seek the death penalty in any of the following criminal matters:

  • First-degree murder with special circumstances, including:
    • Murder for financial gain
    • Murder where the defendant has a prior conviction for first or second-degree murder
    • Murder of multiple people
    • Murder committed using a bomb or explosives
    • Murder to evade arrest or capture
    • Murder of an on-duty police officer or firefighter
    • Murder of a prosecutor, judge, juror, or elected official in retaliation
    • Murder committed to prevent a witness from testifying in a legal matter
    • Murder committed because of a victim’s race, sexual orientation, gender, or religion
    • Murder committed during the commission of another felony (e.g., burglary, arson, kidnapping, rape, carjacking, torture)
    • Murder committed during a drive-by shooting
    • Murder committed in support of a criminal street gang, and/or
    • Any other murder that is particularly heinous or cruel.
  • Treason
  • Sabotaging a train and causing another person to be killed
  • Assault with a deadly weapon resulting in death while serving a life sentence
  • Intentionally interfering with state preparations to go to war, resulting in someone’s death, and
  • Committing perjury for the sole purpose of causing an innocent person to be convicted and executed.

Who Can Request the Death Penalty?

Whether or not the death penalty will be sought in a criminal matter is left to the judgment of the local district attorney. As elected officials, district attorneys tend to reflect the local and current attitude regarding capital punishment. In fact, many district attorneys across the country have recently been elected, in large part, thanks to their opposition to the death penalty.

Over the past few decades, the ultimate punishment has become less and less popular. In California, attempts to ban executions as a form of punishment have come very close to passing. It would not be surprising if, in the near future, capital punishment is no longer a viable option in the Golden State.

For now, however, locally elected district attorneys retain the power to decide whether or not the state will seek the death penalty in criminal matters. This assessment ultimately comes down an evaluation of:

  1. The type of criminal offense committed
  2. Aggravating and mitigating factors
  3. The defendant’s remorse for his or her actions, and
  4. The defendant’s history of criminal acts and convictions.

In most cases, the district attorney will only ask for the death penalty to be considered in the most serious and deserving cases.

What Happens When the State Requests the Death Penalty?

The procedure for a criminal trial where the death penalty is on the table is different than the procedure typically followed in the state of California. The process of seeking the death penalty is split into two distinct phases: trial and penalty. This dual process helps to ensure not only that the defendant is guilty of a capital offense, but also that the death penalty is the most appropriate punishment for this particular crime.

Capital Offense Trial Phase

The first step in seeking the death penalty is proving that a defendant is guilty of a capital offense beyond a reasonable doubt. The state and defense will both prepare arguments, call witnesses to testify, and present evidence to support their respective cases. The defendant will have every opportunity to prove that he or she is not guilty of the crime of which they are accused.

At the end of the trial, a jury will deliberate and determine if there is sufficient evidence to support a conviction of a capital offense. In first-degree murder trials, the jury must not only be convinced that the defendant committed first-degree homicide, but also that the crime involves one of the enumerated special circumstances that can warrant the application of the death penalty. The jury does not deliberate whether or not the death penalty should be imposed at this point in time. The jury’s sole job is to decide the defendant’s guilt or innocence.

Capital Offense Penalty Phase

When a defendant is found guilty of a capital offense with special circumstances, the criminal matter will proceed to the penalty phase. This finding of guilt does not automatically mean that the death penalty will be imposed. The jury has the option of choosing between the death penalty and life in prison without parole.

The penalty phase is basically like another mini trial. The district attorney will offer evidence and testimony to support the argument that the death penalty should be imposed in this particular case. The defense will also have the opportunity to address the jury and present evidence and testimony to persuade the jury to reject the death penalty.

At this point in time, the jury will be asked to consider aggravating and mitigating factors. Aggravating factors are those that make the crime more serious and would cause them to lean toward imposing the death penalty. Mitigating factors, on the other hand, are those that offer justification or excuse, and would cause them to lean toward a sentence of life in prison. Factors that may be relevant to this decision include:

  • The nature of the crime
  • The specific circumstances of the case
  • The defendant’s state of mind and showing of remorse
  • The defendant’s criminal record and history of violence, and/or
  • The defendant’s age at the time of the crime.

The penalty phase concludes when the state and defense have both had the opportunity to argue their case and address the jury. At this point in time, the jury will receive instructions from the judge and leave to deliberate which penalty will be chosen.

Requirements for Imposing the Death Penalty in California

In California, a jury’s decision to impose the death penalty must be unanimous. In other words, all members of the jury must agree that the death penalty is the appropriate punishment for the defendant’s particular crime. If the jury cannot agree on the penalty after considerate deliberation the judge will be forced to declare a hung jury.

When the jury cannot agree, the defendant will be entitled to another trial in front of a new jury. If a second jury is unable to agree that the death penalty is appropriate, the judge presiding over the matter has two options:

  1. Unilaterally impose a sentence of life in prison, or
  2. Order another retrial.

The decision will often boil down to whether the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors.

Appealing the Death Penalty

When the death penalty is imposed, defendants will have several opportunities to appeal the decision. However, the appeals process can be difficult to navigate if you are not represented by an attorney who is intimately familiar with relevant law and procedure.  If you or someone you know is facing the death penalty it is important to speak with an experienced California death penalty attorney immediately.

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