VANGUARD WEBINAR: Civil Rights and Legal Organizations Challenge California’s Death Penalty Statute in Writ Petition

By Kali Chittapuram and Sofia Hosseinzadeh

DAVIS, CA- In California, civil rights and legal organizations filed an extraordinary writ petition to the Supreme Court challenging the state’s death penalty statute.

In a webinar with The Vanguard, Lisa Romo from the Oakland Office of the State Public Defender, Avi Frey with the Northern California’s ACLU Criminal Justice Program, Morgan Zamora from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Karen Muñoz from the Latino PRLDEF discussed the state of the death penalty in California.

According to the webinar discussion, the organizations argue the death penalty violates the California Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause because of racial discrimination that occurs in the enforcement of the death penalty.

The speakers unanimously agreed there existed a plethora of evidence pointing towards the racial bias in the death penalty.

“In our petition, we have presented over 15 studies that cover 44 years of death sentencing in California… they all show disparities both in victim race and defendant race at varying points in the death penalty process,” Romo argued.

Zamora added, there does not exist one specific piece of evidence proving the racial bias.

Zamora maintained, “there are hundreds of individual stories that you can look at and see what happened, but to have it laid out in front of you in a way that is clear that you can’t argue against or say that it’s just one individual person’s experience, this is a systemic issue and it’s an issue that has persisted for a really long time and continues to persist.”

Frey concluded the conversation by transitioning into how Californians should react to the overwhelming evidence proving the racial bias in the death penalty.

“I think the question is what are we going to do about it, if anything, whether the state will stand for it, whether the judiciary will stand for it in our particular case…What will we do with this evidence now that it’s clear and unconformably clear and we are trying to make it known to everyone in the state, this is an ongoing problem,” Frey said.

As for what comes next in the process of changing the death penalty in California, Romo began the conversation stating, “we are hoping the next stage is an order from the California Supreme Court saying, ‘okay, let’s hear your evidence.’ So we are hoping that we will get an evidentiary hearing where we get to present all of this evidence.”

In terms of alternatives to the writ petition, Zamora said clemency for the individuals on death row provides an alternate pathway if the California Supreme Court does not choose to review the petition.

Zamora added, “The governor of the state of California also has the power at any point in time to grant clemency to the individuals who are currently sentenced to death in the state and to provide them a different sentence rather than just granting them clemency on the individual factors of their case. The governor has the power to say that death penalty cases across the board are an injustice and can take action to vacate them.”

Frey said while there do exist alternative routes to relief for individuals on death row, eradicating the death penalty is the only solution to the problem.

“Universal clemency would certainly liberate the hundreds of folks on death row now, it would do nothing with regard to the death penalty statute or it would not prevent any of the ongoing capital prosecutions or death row could be restocked, so to speak, legislation or voter initiative or a constitutional amendment,” Frey argued.

Frey also criticized the effectiveness of attempting to provide justice for individual cases of racial discrimination, stating, “and then we’re talking about pursuing remedies in individual cases that is not going well in California. There are not sufficient attorneys to bring their existing constitutional claims in challenging their death penalties, let alone under the Racial Justice Act.”

According to the ACLU, the California Racial Justice Act provides Californians charged or convicted of a crime the opportunity to report any racial biases in their case.

Frey critiqued the effectiveness of the law in rectifying issues of racial injustice in the criminal justice system.

“It’s hard to overstate the amount of person hours it requires to investigate and plead and then prosecute your Racial Justice Act claims. You must prepare to bring a racial Justice Act claim that’s not based on the transcript, but based on statistical evidence, the sorts of studies that we cite in the petition localized to your county and with comparators to your individual offense… it’s just a fact that the RJA will not permit the sort of relief that we’re trying to obtain here,” Frey concluded.

Romo shed light on the painstaking process behind advocating for change, stating, “these studies are really, really intensive, time-consuming, expensive. The experts who conduct these kinds of studies spend years and years…we’ve finally amassed a critical body of evidence that no one can dispute.”

This ended up highlighting the rigorous efforts taken to build a compelling case for reform over an extended period of time.

In discussing the need for action, Zamora emphasized the voices of those directly impacted, noting, “I think reaching out to the organizations within your community, reaching out to your legislators, reaching out to any of the decision-makers in your local community is really important.”

Frey advocated for individual involvement in advocacy efforts, charging, “Give your time and money to organizations that are in the fight. You can take political action…lobby some of the people who speak on your behalf in government.” This gave more importance to the power of collective action in effecting systemic change.

While addressing alternatives to the death penalty, Zamora articulated a comprehensive approach focused on rehabilitation and societal support, stating, “Our view is we don’t want the death penalty. We also don’t want life without parole…we advocate for a completely different system.”

Romo reinforced the idea of individual agency in advocating for reform, and said, “You have an immense amount of power to reform the system by asking your legislator to adopt reasonable, much more reasonable criminal legal policies.” Romo gave more importance to how civic engagement can drive legislative change.

About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

Related posts

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for