California Supreme Court Holds That Unanimity and Reasonable Doubt Do Not Apply to Death Penalty Sentencing

On Thursday, August 26, 2021, the Supreme Court of California issued a ruling in People v. McDaniel, establishing precedent that jury unanimity and reasonable doubt do not apply to the sentencing phase in California criminal law cases where the death penalty is warranted.

Don’te Lamont McDaniel was convicted of two gang-related murders in 2008. During the sentencing phase, the jury deadlocked over whether to apply the death penalty as punishment for McDaniel’s crimes. A new jury was then impaneled. After four days of deliberation, the new jury found that the death penalty was warranted in McDaniel’s case. All death sentences in California are automatically appealed to the Supreme Court of California. Associate Justice Goodwin H. Liu wrote the opinion for the unanimous court.

After an analysis of pretrial, guilt phase, and penalty phase challenges brought by McDaniel’s lawyers, the Supreme Court of California examined “(1) whether unanimity is required for factually disputed aggravating circumstances during the penalty phase and (2) whether reasonable doubt applies to the jury’s ultimate penalty determination.” With regard to unanimity, the Supreme Court of California “previously held that jury unanimity on the existence of aggravating circumstances is not required under the state Constitution.” McDaniel’s lawyers urged the court to reconsider precedent since those cases “did not rest on any considered analysis of our state constitutional or statutory guarantee.” The court stated that “jury unanimity does not normally extend to subsidiary or foundational factual issues in other contexts,” and that “the jury need not unanimously agree on subsidiary factual issues, such as specific details of the act.” The court emphasized that “‘the rule is an evidentiary one and is not constitutionally mandated,'” (quoting People v. Miranda, 44 Cal.3d 57, 98 (1987)). The court held that “neither article I, section 16 of the California Constitution nor Penal Code section 1042 provides a basis to require unanimity in the jury’s determination of factually disputed aggravating circumstances.”

As to the issue of reasonable doubt, McDaniel’s lawyers requested the court reconsider its “prior holding that the state Constitution does not require the degree of certainty attached to the jury’s ultimate decision to impose the death penalty to be ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,'” (quoting People v. Hartsch, 49 Cal.4th 472, 515 (2010)). McDaniel’s lawyers, along with amici, pointed to several precedential cases in support of this argument. However, the Supreme Court of California found that “none of these authorities specifically discuss a reasonable doubt standard for the capital penalty determination; at most they could support the conclusion that a defendant has the right to a determination by a unanimous jury.” The court also considered legislative history and legislative intent concerning the 1957 death penalty statute that bifurcated the guilt and penalty phases of a trial. In light of all authority cited, the court held that it is “unable to infer from the jury trial guarantee in article I, section 16 of the California Constitution or Penal Code section 1042 a requirement of certainty beyond a reasonable doubt for the ultimate penalty verdict.”

The Supreme Court of California affirmed the judgment of the trial court.

Additional Reading

California high court upholds death sentence in a precedent-setting case, Courthouse News Service (August 26, 2021)

Supreme Court of California Opinion in People v. McDaniel

Photo Credit: Motortion Films /