Last week, we completed our look at the Court’s majority opinions across the spectrum from civil to non-death criminal cases to the Court’s docket of mandatory death penalty appeals. With the constitutional challenge to the Proposition 66 death penalty referendum still pending before the California Supreme Court, let’s take a closer look at the Court’s death penalty appeals.
The Court has for the past sixteen years decided between one dozen and two dozen death penalty appeals a year – ranging from a low of 11 in 2001 to a high of 26 in 2008, 2009 and 2011. According to the Legislative Analyst’s office, over 900 people have received death sentences in California since the current death penalty statute was enacted in 1978. According to a report on Proposition 66 from the American Civil Liberties Union of California, as of November 2015, the Supreme Court had approximately 340 undecided death penalty appeals, including 110 which were fully briefed but not yet set for argument and another 128 which had appointed counsel and were in the process of briefing. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, as of September 2015, 57 defendants were awaiting the appointment of counsel in their direct appeals. Proposition 66 requires that absent “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances, direct appeals and the initial state habeas corpus proceedings be completed within five years.
As we see in Table 155 below, the Court’s unanimity rate in death penalty appeals has in nearly every year been significantly higher than its unanimity rate elsewhere on the docket. In 2000, unanimity reached its highest rate of the period, as the Court decided 92.31% of its death penalty appeals unanimously. That figure dropped to 90.91% in 2001 and 69.23% in 2002 – the lowest figure of the period – before increasing to a trend value of between 80 and 90%. In 2004, 90.48% of the cases were unanimous. Between 2005 and 2009, between eighty and ninety percent were. In 2010, 91.67% were unanimous. That figure took a one-year dip in 2011 to 73.08%, but in 2012, it was back up to 92%. Unanimity was at 83.33% in 2013 and 82.61% in 2014 before falling to 76.47% in 2015.
Join us back here tomorrow as we look at the Court’s reversal rate in death penalty appeals.