Thursday, March 13, 2014

People v. Montes (Cal. Supreme Ct. - March 13, 2014)

I'm not going to ask anyone to read this 100-page plus opinion.  Because it's (of course) a death penalty case.  With a fairly predictable result.  The Court unanimously agrees the guy dies.

I will instead highlight just two portions of the opinion.  Without substantial comment.  See what you think.

Defendant says he was unfairly singled out for the death penalty because his victim was (1) white, and (2) has brothers and a stepfather who were police officers.  He says that the Riverside DA unconstitutionally sought the death penalty against him (and others) based on those characteristics, thereby depriving him of equal protection.  Here's the law:  It violates the Equal Protection Clause to decide to prosecute based on "an unjustifiable standard such as race, religion or other arbitrary classification."

With respect to the claim of discrimination based upon the race of the victim, defendant introduced a study that showed the 81% of the capital charges brought by the Riverside DA within the relevant period were brought when the victim was white, whereas only 39% of the wilful homicides in the area during this period involved white victims.  Defendant wants discovery from the Riverside DA for more information about the charging details.

To obtain such discovery, you've got to produce "some evidence" tending to show discriminatory intent and effect, and/or to sustain your requested discovery "by plausible justification".

The California Supreme Court holds that defendant's study doesn't satisfy this standard because it's not detailed enough; instead, it's a "bare statistical comparison of the race of homicide victims in Riverside County without consideration of individual case characteristics" that "[s]ignificantly, [] did not indicate what
percentage of the non-White-victim homicides would have been eligible to be charged as capital homicides."  In other words, defendant is not permitted to obtain discovery of individual case characteristics because the existing information available to defendant's experts does not include individual case characteristics.

Think about that for a tiny bit.

With respect to the claim of intentional discrimination based on the fact that the victim's relatives were police officers, here's the entirety of the Court's response:

"Defendant additionally contends he was subject to discriminatory prosecution because the victim was related to members of law enforcement. He points to a taped interview between codefendant Gallegos, police detectives, and the deputy district attorney, in which an interviewer mentioned that the victim’s stepfather was a former police officer and that his brothers were police officers. However, defendant fails to provide authority that this type of victim status constitutes an unjustifiable or arbitrary classification under federal equal protection. We therefore reject defendant’s arguments based on this aspect of the victim’s status."

I get that defendant "fails to provide authority" for the point.  Beyond, of course, citing the relevant standard from the California Supreme Court.  Which merits quotation again:  "It violates the Equal Protection Clause to decide to prosecute based on an unjustifiable standard such as race, religion or other arbitrary classification."

Which means that the California Supreme Court is of the view that it wouldn't be an "arbitrary classification" to seek the death penalty solely against people whose victims were related to police officers.  That'd be fine.  Consistent with the Equal Protection Clause.  There's "no authority" to the contrary.

Think about that one as well.

Remember that this is a unanimous opinion of the California Supreme Court.  Where someone's life is on the line.

So presumably these ideas were well thought out.