LOS ANGELES – The California Supreme Court Thursday upheld the constitutionality of Proposition 66, a ballot measure approved by voters to change the state’s death penalty system and expedite executions, but significantly weakened one of its major provisions.
The court ruled that the measure’s five-year time frame for resolving appeals by condemned inmates was just advisory rather than mandatory. In many cases, death penalty appeals drag on for decades and condemned inmates frequently die of natural causes.
The measure narrowly beat a competing initiative on the November ballot that would have repealed the death penalty.
Judges heard oral arguments against Prop 66 in June, which stated that the requirement for courts to finish hearing death penalty appeals within five years interferes with the court’s authority and would not serve justice or the public interest. There are 380 death penalty appeals now pending.
The five-year “directive” should be interpreted as “an exhortation to the parties and the courts to handle cases as expeditiously as is consistent with the fair and principled administration of justice,” Justice Carol A. Corrigan wrote.
Proposition 66 also expands the pool of appellate lawyers handling capital cases and allows lower level state courts — not just the California Supreme Court — to hear death appeals. There are nearly 750 inmates on death row and only 13 have been executed since 1978. Executions stopped after 2006 due to legal challenges over lethal injections.
Michele Hanisee, president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, applauded the court’s overall ruling.
“We are pleased with the court’s decision to uphold the will of the voters,” Hanisee said. “Prop 66 preserves the death penalty for the most heinous criminals by enacting critically needed reforms to the system. The court recognized that Californians not only voted to keep the death penalty but also to reform the appellate court system and ensure the death penalty is carried out in a timely manner.”
It is important to remember, at the same time voters passed Prop 66, voters rejected a competing initiative that would have eliminated the death penalty and allowed criminals who kill cops or rape and murder children to live out their lives in prison, she said.