Gov. Gavin Newsom Monday filed a legal brief in the case of a man who was sent to death row for murdering a fellow gang member and his female cousin and trying to kill two other women in the Nickerson Gardens area of Watts, arguing that capital punishment is unequally applied to people of color.
The filing, made in connection with Donte McDaniel’s case, marks the first time in California’s history that a sitting governor has filed an amicus — or friend of the court — brief that contends that the death penalty is unfairly and evenly applied.
“Amid our nationwide reckoning on racism and historical injustice, the state of California is continuing to address the failings in our criminal justice system,” the governor said in a written statement accompanying the legal filing. “California’s capital punishment scheme is now, and always has been, infected by racism … 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 declared a moratorium on the death penalty in California in March 2019.
The brief — filed on behalf of Newsom by Elisabeth Semel, director of the Death Penalty Clinic in Berkeley, and Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law — alleges that there is “extensive evidence that racial discrimination infects the administration of California’s death penalty” and that Blacks in California “have been disproportionately excluded” from juries in capital cases.
The governor is asking the California Supreme Court to determine that jurors “unanimously determine beyond a reasonable doubt factually disputed aggravating evidence and the ultimate penalty verdict.”
“The full protections of the jury right in capital sentencing are imperative to removing the intolerable influence of racial bias,” according to the filing.
Los Angeles County — where McDaniel was tried and sentenced to death — is a “national outlier in its continued imposition of capital punishment” and an “outlier within California in the disproportionate percentage of Black defendants it has sentenced to death,” the brief says.
The brief notes that 85% of the people on death row for killings in Los Angeles County are people of color and just 15% are white, compared with 59% of people of color and 41% white on the rest of death row in California.
McDaniel — who is Black — was convicted of first-degree murder for the April 6, 2004, shooting deaths of fellow gang member George Brooks, 33, and Brooks’ cousin, Annette Anderson, 52, at her apartment.
He was also convicted of two counts of attempted murder involving two other women in the apartment who were shot repeatedly.
Co-defendant Kai Harris, who is also Black and was convicted of the crimes, was sentenced to death in November 2009 by the second panel to hear his penalty phase after jurors in his first trial deadlocked on what punishment he should face.
The California Supreme Court has not yet heard automatic appeals filed on behalf of McDaniel and Harris.
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