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California Death Penalty Laws and the California Supreme Court A Ten Year Perspective

NCJ Number
Crime and Social Justice Issue: 25 Dated: (1986) Pages: 78-93
G F Uelmen
Date Published
16 pages
A review of California Supreme Court decisions pertaining to the State's 1977 and 1978 death penalty laws indicates that the large number of reversals of death sentences was due primarily to the inadequate drafting of the 1978 law.
The 1977 California death penalty law was repealed and replaced by a 1978 law ('Briggs Initiative') which expanded the offense types for which the death penalty could be imposed. The law requires three distinct factual determinations before a death sentence may be imposed. First, the defendant must be convicted of an offense which carries a possible death sentence (first degree murder, sabotage, treason, perjury procuring the execution of an innocent person, train wrecking, and deadly assault by an inmate serving a life term). Second, when a defendant is convicted of first degree murder, the fact finder must conclude that one of the 'special circumstances' defined by statute was present. Third, aggravating circumstances must outweigh mitigating circumstances before a death sentence may be imposed. As of March 1, 1986, 54 cases had been reviewed by the State Supreme Court under the two laws. There were 51 reversals and 3 affirmances. A review of the court decisions in accordance with the three areas of factual determination indicates that 65 percent of the reversals did not affect the validity of the convictions. Seventy-five percent of the reversals under the 1978 law were related to the determination of 'special circumstances.' There has been no full affirmance of a death penalty under this law. The 1978 law has contradictions, ambiguities, ignorance of precedent, inconsistencies, and erroneous citations. 1 table.


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