Thursday, February 02, 2012

People v. Brents (Cal. Supreme Ct. - Feb. 2, 2012)

Here's a death penalty case in the California Supreme Court.  There's a majority opinion, and a concurrence by Justice Liu and a partial dissent by Justice Werdegar.  So pretty routine, eh?

Except everyone on the Court agrees on the result.  Which is to reverse the death sentence.  And the only fight is about whether the evidence was sufficient to justify a retrial at the penalty phase.

Plus the opinions total less than 30 pages.

It's a brave new world.

This is admittedly a somewhat unique case.  The defendant's a really bad guy -- that's not unusual.  But the instructions at the penalty phase were definitely messed up, and the only special circumstance the jury found was that the defendant kidnapped the victim -- which he did, but largely (or exclusively) in order to murder her, which doesn't count.  The fight's about whether there was any evidence of a non-murder motive for the kidnapping:  the majority holds the evidence was "miminal" on this point but permits a retrial, whereas Justice Werdegar believes it's insufficient. 

So an unusual result.  But at least there's one thing that doesn't change.  The murder was committed in 1995 and defendant was caught almost instantly.  So that's 17 years just to conclude a single trial and appeal, and over a decade just for the resolution of the fairly straightforward appeal.

Death is different.  And not good.

P.S. - Don't think that this opinion indicates a wholesale change of heart.  Today also results in another -- more typical -- opinion by the California Supreme Court.  Which unanimously affirms the death penalty and spans 82 pages.  For a murder committed even longer ago; this time, in the 1980s.  So the more things change . . . .