California's chief justice on Thursday said the state Supreme Court is being overwhelmed by reviews of death penalty cases and wants the process modified through a constitutional amendment.
Chief Justice Ronald George said the state's process for reviewing death sentences is dysfunctional, forcing years of delays before cases are fully reviewed and convicts are executed.
He proposed changing California's constitutional requirement that the state Supreme Court directly review all death sentences. Under his proposal, the justices would send most death sentence appeals to appellate courts instead of hearing the cases themselves.
They would keep only those cases that require a quick decision or would set precedent for large numbers of condemned inmates, while retaining the right to review any appellate court's decision.
The court receives between 25 and 40 death penalty cases a year and would transfer up to 30 to the appeals court, George said.
"Thoughtful individuals on both sides of the death penalty debate should be able to agree on one thing: The existing system for handling capital appeals in California is dysfunctional and needs reform," George told the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice.
Death penalty appeals account for nearly 25 percent of the roughly 120 opinions the high court issues each year. That is up from less than 10 percent a few decades ago, George said.
He has been behind bars since the January 1981 rape and murder of 17-year-old Terri Lynn Winchell, a Tokay High School senior, and he was almost executed in February 2006. Citing concerns that California's lethal injection process might not be painless, and thus violate Constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment, a judge halted the proceedings.
California's lethal injection procedures are now being revamped, but the state is also watching a U.S. Supreme Court case concerning the same protocol. The Court heard arguments on the matter Monday and is expected to issue an opinion by this summer.
Chief Justice Ronald George's suggestion to change California's death penalty appeal process won't affect Morales. His case had been reviewed by all courts and the only remaining matter is the lethal injection issue.
- News-Sentinel staff.
The increase is interfering with the seven justices' primary mission, which is to interpret the law in the nation's largest state court system, he said. It also is compounding a yearlong backlog of death penalty appeals.
"I view this as a real crisis," George said. "We either become totally a death penalty court, do nothing else … or we just resign ourselves to the fact that the backlog is just going to become worse and worse and worse."
California has the nation's largest death row, with 670 condemned prisoners. The appeals process typically drags out for 20 years or more.
Thursday's hearing was the first of three the commission plans over the next three months as it considers whether California's death penalty system is fair and can be improved.
George said he hopes the commission will recommend that legislators put his proposal on the November ballot.
"If you're going to have a death penalty, it should be one that functions," George told reporters outside the hearing.
State Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, R-Orange, said he doubts George's proposal can get the two-thirds vote from lawmakers that would be needed to put the measure before voters.
Many lawmakers who oppose the death penalty are happy with state and federal judicial delays that have led to a virtual moratorium on executions, he said. That could force supporters to seek a ballot initiative to bypass reluctant lawmakers, Spitzer said.
"He's virtually screaming for some relief to be able to properly review death penalty appeals in California," Spitzer said.
Natasha Minsker, death penalty policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the answer isn't to merely add another layer of judicial review.
"It's just a shell game. It doesn't fix the core problem," Minsker said outside the hearing.
California's protracted appellate process, designed to prevent execution of convicts who might actually be innocent, is so expensive and unwieldy that it isn't worth the money, particularly as the state struggles with a massive budget deficit, she said.
"Sentencing people to die in prison (life sentences without parole) is a cheaper and more affordable alternative," Minsker said.