Governor Newsom Files Historic Amicus Brief in Death Penalty Case, Arguing for Greater Protections Against Racial Bias in Jury Proceedings 

Builds on Governor’s actions to end the death penalty in California and address systemic racism in the criminal justice system

SACRAMENTO – Governor Gavin Newsom today filed an amicus brief in People v. McDaniel, a case before the California Supreme Court that involves issues of racial bias in jury deliberation and sentencing decisions. This filing marks the first time in California history that a sitting governor has filed an amicus brief calling attention to the unfair and uneven application of the death penalty, noting the state’s bedrock responsibility to ensure equal justice under the law applies to all people no matter their race. The brief argues that capital cases should require unanimity in the jury’s penalty verdict and proof beyond a reasonable doubt of disputed aggravating evidence.

“Amid our nationwide reckoning on racism and historical injustice, the State of California is continuing to address the failings in our criminal justice system. California’s capital punishment scheme is now, and always has been, infected by racism,” said Governor Newsom. “Since its inception, the American death penalty has been disproportionately applied, first, to enslaved Africans and African Americans, and, later to free Black people. With this filing, we make clear that all Californians deserve the same right to a jury trial that is fair, and that it is a matter of life and death.”

The Governor’s brief discusses the historical and current mechanisms that lead to the unequal application of capital punishment to people of color, especially Black and Latinx Californians. It then explains how this context, including the legacy of racial terror and subjugation, leads to significant racial disparities in capital prosecutions and sentencing based on the race of defendants and on the race of victims. It describes how people of color are excluded from juries and how their voices are diluted or silenced when they do serve on juries. Since jurors of color often have different experiences and perceptions of the justice system than white jurors and often are less likely to support death verdicts than their white counterparts, the lack of a unanimity or beyond a reasonable doubt requirement compounds racial discrimination and disparities in the death penalty. The brief argues that requiring unanimity in jury determinations and the application of the beyond a reasonable doubt standard to the ultimate penalty determination is necessary to protect against the pernicious influence of racial bias in jury selection and decision-making.

Today’s filing builds on Governor Newsom’s longstanding opposition to the death penalty and actions to end its practice statewide. In March 2019, Governor Newsom issued a moratorium on the death penalty and closed the execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison. The Governor has also taken steps to address systemic racism in policing and the criminal justice system, including signing AB 2542, which will prohibit the use of race, ethnicity or national origin to seek or obtain convictions or impose sentences; and AB 3070, which aims to eliminate discrimination in jury selection.

A copy of the amicus brief can be found here.