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Crimes Punishable by Death in California

The death penalty, also known as Capital Punishment, is currently legal in 31 states, including California. Although, the state of California has not executed anyone in 13 years as of January 2019, there are still nearly 1,000 people that have been sentenced to death since the current system was adopted in 1978. In that time, there has been a total of 13 executions.

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 (

Challenging a Death Sentence in California

Being sentenced to death is about as serious as it gets for a person. Yet, the law does not take capital punishment lightly either, providing multiple ways for a defendant to challenge this sentence. Here are the common approaches to fighting a death sentence:

  1. Application to Overturn the Verdict

After a jury has imposed capital punishment, the defendant automatically has an application to overturn the verdict filed. This is also known as a motion for a new trial in California. This will result in the judge on the case reviewing all the evidence. The judge will then consider the jury’s decision, and if it is determined that the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors, the death penalty will be deemed as the appropriate punishment. On the other hand, the judge can reduce the sentence to life without parole, or order a new trial, if they feel there is a conflict with the jury’s decision.

  1. Automatic State Appeal

Similar to the application for a new trial, the death penalty is also automatically appealed to the California Supreme Court. No action has to be taken by either the defendant or the defense lawyer and the same lawyer will represent the defendant in the appeal. The appeal must be filed within seven months after the record from the trial is finalized. However, in this time, the defendant will be waiting on death row, therefore, most defenses lawyers will move quickly when handling a death penalty appeal. After, the court then has to decide on the appeal within another seven months after it receives all briefs. If the California Supreme Court decides against the appeal there is one more option. This is called a “petition for certiorari”, which entails appealing the sentence to the United States Supreme Court. This is not an automatic appeal and the United States Supreme Court is not required to accept the appeal. Instead, it will review the petition and if they believe the defendant’s case has merit, it will hear the appeal.

  1. Habeas Corpus Petitions

Another approach to avoiding a death sentence is the habeas corpus petition. With this, the defendant is arguing that something went extremely wrong with the trial. These wrongs could be any of the following:

  • The prosecutor committed prosecutorial misconduct at the trial.
  • The defendant’s lawyer at trial was incompetent.
  • The law under which the defendant was convicted is unconstitutional.
  •  New evidence has been discovered that would completely undermine the case against the defendant.

For this, the defendant must file habeas corpus petition with the California Supreme Court while his/her appeal to the California Supreme Court is ongoing. The California Supreme Court will then decide if they will hold a hearing in regard to the petition. Regardless, it has to rule on the petition within ninety days after the hearing or after all briefing is finished. Again, If the California Supreme Court denies the petition, it can be appealed to the United States Supreme Court, although this is rarely successful.

  1. Executive Clemency

This is the option if all else has failed. In California, it is called executive clemency and it means the prisoner has the right to apply to the Governor of the state, who has the power to stop a death sentence from being carried out. This approach will be argued by the prosecutor in the county where the prisoner was convicted, however, the prisoner can have the help of a lawyer throughout this process. Although this approach rarely pays off, it has been successful in the past. The last time it was successful in the state of California was in 1967 while Ronald Reagan was the Governor.

Are You or a Loved One Facing Severe Charges?

Although we have provided possible ways to challenge the death sentence, this information only grazes the top of these extensive approaches. It is in your best interest to reach out to a dedicated and aggressive Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer when battling the death sentence. Our defense attorneys have years of experience and extensive knowledge on these processes. Call us today for a free consultation, 1-800-455-6200.

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