Criminal Justice

California Counters National Trend in Death Sentences

December 19, 2009

Although the number of death sentences issued across the United States in 2009 dipped to the lowest level since 1976, the number of such sentences in California increased. During 2009, 29 people received death sentences in California, compared to 20 last year. Los Angeles county alone condemned more people to death sentences in 2009 than any state in the nation.  The Death Penalty Information Center released a report on December 18 stating that death sentences nationally decreased this year. The report attributed the decline to growing apprehensions about the possibility of wrongful convictions, as well as increasing concerns about the costs of the death penalty. 

In 1972, the California Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment violated the state constitution because it constituted cruel and unusual punishment. As a result of the ruling, 107 inmates were taken off death row and resentenced to life imprisonment. In a rapid response, in November of that same year, voters passed an initiative promoted by law enforcement interests that reinstated the death penalty. California now has largest death row, with 697 people.

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More people in California received death sentences in 2009 than any other state, despite a decline in capital punishment sentencing nationally.

California Voters Decide Criminal Justice Initiatives

November 7, 2012

California voters sent mixed signals by narrowly defeating Proposition 34, the initiative to replace the death penalty with life in prisonment, while overwhelmingly approving Proposition 36, which reforms the state's harsh Three Strikes Law.

By a 47%-53% margin, voters chose to maintain the state's death penalty. But the initiative's proponents pointed out that the percentage of voters supporting capital punishment has dropped dramatically since 1978, when 71% of the electorate supported an initiative to reinstate the death penalty.

California has the largest and costliest death row in the United States. If Proposition 34 had passed, the death sentences of California’s 726 death row inmates would have been converted to a sentence of life in prison with no possibility of parole. Convicted killers would also have been required to work and pay restitution into a victims’ compensation fund.

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By a 69%-31% margin, voters passed Proposition 36, an initiative eliminating 25 years-to life sentences currently imposed on "third strike" offenders who have never been convicted of a crime like murder or rape, and whose third strike is for a non-violent, non-serious crime like petty theft or drug posession.

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Proposition 34, to replace the death penalty with life imprisonment without parole, narrowly loses, while Proposition 36, to reform the state's harsh Three Strikes Law, passes by a wide margin

State Appeals Court Overturns DNA Collection Law

August 5, 2011

A state court of appeals invalidated Proposition 69, a 2004 initiative requiring law enforcement officers to collect DNA samples from anyone arrested for a felony, ruling that it violates the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures,

Writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, Justice Anthony Klein stated, "There is no doubt that an extraordinary amount of private personal information can be extracted from the DNA samples and specimens seized by the police without a warrant, collected and indefinitely retained by the (state) Department of Justice."

The state court decision conflicts with a 2010 federal court ruling by U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer, who upheld the law. 

Although passed in 2004, Proposition 69 went into effect in 2009. DNA samples collected under the law are stored in a criminal database accessible to local, state, national, and international law enforcement agencies. Instead of being limited to serious, violent offenses, the law applies to victims of domestic violence who are arrested after defending themselves, people wrongfully arrested due to police misconduct, someone who has written a bad check, and people arrested during political demonstrations.

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Three-judge panel unanimously rules that a voter intiative mandating DNA samples from everyone arrested for a felony violates the Fourth Amendment of the federal Constitution

First Execution in Nearly Five Years Postponed

October 1, 2010

A day before death row inmatte Albert Greenwood Brown was to be put to death in San Quentin Prison (pictured here), the California Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling temporarily halting the execution. 

For almost five years, the State of California has engaged in a protracted legal battle over its method of execution: lethal injection. As part of a lawsuit challenging the lethal injection process of killing prisoners in California, U.S. District Court Judge Jeremy Fogel  in 2006 temporarily halted executions in the state until the Schwarzenegger administration revised the process of killing condemned prisoners to insure that they do not suffer from cruel and unusual punishment. Since then, there has been a de facto moratorium on executions.

Brown's execution was scheduled for the evening of September 30, just hours before the state's supply of sodium thiopental, one of the drugs used in the lethal injection process, was to expire. Because of a nationwide shortage of the drug, a new supply can not be obtained until 2011.

The California Supreme Court refused to grant the state's request that the court speed up its process of reviewing a lower court's ruling that had allowed for Brown's execution to move forward. The high court faulted the government, saying that "the state has itself contributed to circumstances incompatible with the orderly resolution, pursuant to normal procedures, of pending legal issues" by scheduling the execution so close to the drug's expiration date.

The day before the state supreme court's ruling, U.S. District Court Judge  Fogel ordered that Brown's execution be delayed until he can review whether the state's revised lethal injection process meets constitutional muster.

Brown was convited in 1982 of raping and murdering a Riverside teen two years earlier. 

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After days of uncertainty and legal twists and turns, federal and state courts put off the execution of Albert Greenwood Brown.

California Prison Population Declines

March 18, 2010

A survey released by the Pew Center on States finds that the number of people incarcerated in California state prisons decreased last year for the third straight year. Nationally, the number of individuals in state prisons fell slightly, the first decline since 1972.

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The number of prisoners currently incarcerated in California--170,000--is more than double the number imprisoned in 1988.

Since the early 1980s, when politicians focused on "law and order" policies and the "war on drugs," California's prison population has grown to beyond capacity. The initiative process has contributed greatly to the exponential growth of California inmates. Beginning in 1978, voters have approved a slew of initiatives dealing with criminal justice. Almost all of them have reduced the rights of the accused, extended sentences, and created more prisons. Between 1984 and 2000, California constructed forty-three new prisons. Almost half of California's prisoners are locked up for violating a drug law.

In related news, the federal receiver who oversees the California prison health care system is working with state senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) on legislation to allow ailing and incapacitated prisoners to be released on medical parole. Because of litigation challenging inadequate medical care in state prisons, a federal court found that the prison health care system caused an "unconscionable degree of suffering and death." The court also noted that an inmate in California's prisons needlessly died every six to seven days due to grossly deficient medical care.

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The number of inmates in state prisons decreased in 2009 for the third consecutive year. The decrease in California's prison population was the largest in the country.

Governor Meets Deadline for Plans to Reduce Inmate Population

November 13, 2009

After initially defying a federal court order to submit plans to reduce California's prison population by 40,000 over two years, Governor Schwarzenegger met a November 12 deadline to file plans with the court.  The governor's initial plans for inmate reduction spanned five years and fell short of the 40,000 figure.  In response, attorneys for California prisoners asked the court to cite Schwarzenegger in contempt.  The judges instead gave the governor a November 12 deadline.  The court order resulted from a three-judge panel's finding that overcrowding at the the state's 33 correctional facilities - filled to nearly double their capacity- was the main reason for dangerously inadequate prison health care in violation of the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Since the 1980s, punitive laws and initiatives have contributed to an explosion in the state's prison population.

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Governor Schwarzenegger met a deadline to submit plans to reduce the number of inmates in California's severly overcrowded prisons.  The plans now go to the legislature.

Ballot Propositions and Civil Rights

This lesson examines the history of ballot propositions in the struggle for equal rights in California. Students examine the tension between “the voice of the majority” and the defense of minority rights and the role played by the judiciary in protecting the Constitutional rights of minority communities from injustices imposed by majority rule through the ballot initiative process.

Help us evaluate this lesson plan.


Dianne Feinstein Attempts to Restore Due Process Rights

March 1, 2012

On February 29, Calfornia Senator Dianne Feinstein chaired a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on legislation she is sponsoring to protect due process rights that are threatened by the National Defense Authorization Act, which President Obama signed on December 31.

That law allows the military to arrest, detain, and indefinitely imprison anyone in the U.S. suspected of terrorism without charges or trials. 

Feinstein's bill would protect the due process rights of American citizens and legal residents but not of business travelers, tourists, undocumented immigrants or others who are not U.S. citizens or green card holders.

Thus far, 24 senators have co-sponsored the legislation.

Feinstein has compared the controversial provision of the National Defense Authorization Act to the 1942 Executive Order that authorized the military to exclude people from any part of the U.S.  That order was the basis for the mass incarceration, without charges or trials, of Japanese Americans during World War II.

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Her legislation addresses a provision of the National Defense Authorization Act allowing the military to arrest and imprison Americans without charges or trials.

U.S. Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Appeal of Torture Victims

May 18, 2011

On May 16, the United States Supreme Court denied the petition of five foreign nationals who sued Jeppesen Dataplan, a San Jose-based subsidiary of Boeing that the men accuse of arranging CIA extraordinary rendition flights to countries where they were tortured.

The men had asked the high court to review a sharply divided Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling dismissing their lawsuit filed by the ACLU. The civil liberties group argued that the government is misusing the claim of "state secrets" to deny the men their day in court.

The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, claimed that the case should be thrown out because trying the suit would reveal state secrets.

But the ACLU countered that that lawsuit is based on publicly available information.

A 2007 Council of Europe report described Jeppesen as the CIA's aviation services provider. A court declaration in the men's legal challenge quotes a Jeppesen manager as telling colleagues in 2006 that the company arranged the CIA's "torture flights."

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Five men accused a San Jose-based company of arranging CIA extraordinary rendition flights to countries where they were tortured

Verdict Reached in Trial of Police Officer Accused of Killing Unarmed Man

July 9, 2010

After deliberating six and a half hours over two days, a Los Angeles jury on July 8 found former Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer Johannes Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Oscar Grant, a twenty-two-year-old unarmed African American Hayward resident.

Angry Reaction

Mehserle faces from five to fourteen years in prison.

Grant's mother, Wanda Johnson, reacted angrily to the verdict saying, "My son was murdered. . . . and the law has not held the officer accountable." Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley expressed frustration over the verdict, stating, "We believe Johannes Mehserle was guilty of the crime of murder." The jury had the options of convicting Mehserle of second-degree murder or manslaughter.

Mehserle's defense attorney did not comment on the verdict outside the courthouse.

Federal Prosecution Possible

The U.S. Justice Department issued a statement explaining that its civil rights division, the FBI, and the U.S. attorney's office "have an open investigation into the fatal shooting." The statement indicated that the federal government would conduct an independent review of the facts to determine whether the evidence supports a federal prosecution.

Shooting Caught on Video

Mehserle and other BART police officers had detained Grant and four of his friends at the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland at about 2:00 a.m. on New Year's Day 2009 for allegedly fighting on a train.

During his trial, Mehserle testified that he intended to use his taser gun but mistakenly grabbed his pistol and fatally shot Grant in the back while he was prone on a train platfom, pinned down by another BART police officer. Several passengers on a waiting BART train taped the shooting on their cell phones.

In October 2009, an Alameda County Superior Court judge ordered a change of venue for Mehserle's trial.

Oakland Officials Prepared

After Los Angeles court officials announced earlier in the day on July 8 that the jury in the Mehserle trial would deliver its verdict at 4:00 that afternoon, workers in downtown Oakland left the area in droves.

After the verdict was announced, hundreds of people gathered in downtown Oakland for largely peaceful protests to express their anger and frustration about the jury's decision. After nightfall, however, small groups smashed windows in some downtown businesses and looted a Foot Locker store.

Oakland city and community leaders had anticipated potential violent reactions to the news of a verdict and for weeks had planned peaceful means for people upset about a verdict to express their anger.


In 1992, rioting erupted in Los Angeles after a Simi Valley jury found all four officers charged with crimes related to the highly publicized videotaped beating of Rodney King not guilty of all charges. After three days of violence, 58 people were dead, more than 2,000 were injured, and property damage amounted to nearly $800 million.

Eventually two of the officers involved in the beating were convicted in federal court of violating King's civil rights. 

Los Angeles jury finds former Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer Johannes Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the 2009 shooting death of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old unarmed African American man.
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