California Supreme Court Lets New Death Penalty Cases Proceed, Despite Moratorium

September 13, 2019by Nico Savidge

SAN FRANCISCO — The California Supreme Court on Thursday rejected attempts from two men to block prosecutors from seeking the death penalty against them, indicating the court will not stop new death sentences from being imposed, even as Gov. Gavin Newsom has halted executions in the state.

District attorneys have continued to pursue capital cases since Newsom this spring imposed a moratorium on the death penalty while he is in office and dismantled the state’s execution chamber.

Attorneys in two separate cases from Los Angeles County petitioned the state Supreme Court this summer to block prosecutors from seeking death sentences against their clients in part because a future governor could reverse Newsom’s action.

The court rejected both petitions Thursday, allowing the cases against defendants Jade Douglas Harris and Cleamon Johnson to proceed in Los Angeles County, and potentially clearing the way for those men or others to be added to California’s death row, even as executions are on hold.

The justices did not make any further statement explaining their decision, as is typical when the court denies petitions for review, and the action does not officially create a precedent.

But Cliff Gardner, a Berkeley attorney representing several defendants in death penalty appeals, said defendants in other capital cases can probably expect the same response from the high court.

“Unless there is a dramatically different record that comes to the Supreme Court, this ruling indicates they are not going to stop death penalty trials from going forward,” Gardner said.

He said the action also underscores how fleeting Newsom’s reprieve from executions could be if another governor decides to reverse his action.

“It’s not stopping DAs from pursuing capital cases and trying to put guys on (death) row,” Gardner said. “Gov. Newsom’s action speaks for Gov. Newsom and his administration.”

California last executed a convicted inmate in 2006.

Harris has been charged with shooting three people to death at a business in Downey in 2012, while Johnson is accused in a series of gang murders from the early 1990s.

In each petition to the Supreme Court, attorneys argued that it would be impossible for jurors to consider the weight of imposing a death sentence because Newsom’s moratorium has led them to believe it won’t ever be carried out.

Jurors may wrongly conclude the death penalty has been abolished in California, attorneys for Harris wrote, meaning “the courts can no longer safely rely on the premise that jurors recognize a death sentence as an ‘awesome responsibility’ rather than a symbolic verdict.”

Prosecutors from the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office countered that jurors will be properly instructed that an execution could still be carried out if the jury orders it.

“Nothing about the governor’s order alters the jury’s role in the system,” attorneys from the District Attorney’s Office wrote in response to Johnson’s petition.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office declined to comment Thursday on the court’s decision. Lawyers for Johnson and Harris did not respond to requests for comment.

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©2019 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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