Report: State sets aside seven death sentences for every one carried out

The Associated Press
Monday April 15, 2002

SAN JOSE – In a state that touts itself as a national model in resources in legal protections for death penalty defendants, seven death sentences are set aside for every one carried out, according to a newspaper’s review. 

Death sentences imposed in California end up getting overturned for a variety of reasons including prosecutorial misconduct and judicial error, the San Jose Mercury News reported Sunday. 

Also, the state Supreme Court, one of the nation’s most pro-death penalty high courts, applies a different standard than federal courts, resulting in reversals at the much-later federal level, decades after the crime. 

The newspaper’s review of hundreds of cases found that in cases involving the murder of children, police officers, college students and the elderly, appeal courts reviewing death sentences are repeatedly finding incompetent lawyers, prosecutorial misconduct and judicial errors. 

The Mercury News examined 72 cases reversed by state and federal courts since 1987 and 150 appeals now pending in the federal courts. It excluded 64 death sentences overturned by the state Supreme Court under Chief Justice Rose Bird from 1978 to 1986, a period in which just four death sentences were affirmed and no executions took place. 

The review also found: 

— California typically spends much more money on capital cases than most states, but the dozens of death sentences reversed since 1987 involved trials marred by the same types of problems found in states known for spending less on capital cases. 

— California hasn’t taken corrective actions that other states have. For example, it hasn’t set minimum statewide standards for the qualifications of defense lawyers appointed to death-penalty trials. The result has been an inconsistent county-by-county system of appointing lawyers. 

— The main issue in reversals is whether a defendant deserves to be put to death, rather than guilt or innocence. About two-thirds of reversals overturn only the death sentence, not the conviction. The review of 150 cases pending before federal courts found only a few in which inmates contend they were wrongfully convicted. 

— California’s Supreme Court is in greater conflict with federal courts than any other state’s. The state court, one of the most conservative in the nation, reverses 10 percent of death sentences, one of the lowest rates in the country. But federal courts have reversed 62 percent of the sentences affirmed by the California court, the highest rate nationally. 

The high rate of reversal has profound consequences for the future of the death penalty in California, which has more than 600 inmates on death row, by far the most in the country. 

With the state carrying out only 10 executions since voters restored the death penalty in 1978, even some long-time capital punishment supporters are asking whether it should be abandoned. 

“The whole thing is a mess,” said former state Supreme Court Justice Edward Panelli, a conservative who voted to affirm most death sentences he reviewed. “It wouldn’t hurt me at all if they just changed the law.” 

Prosecutors, groups that back capital punishment and many judges, including California’s chief justice, defend the system, saying the reversal rate simply reflects the close scrutiny given to the state’s death judgments.