The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments require any fact other than a prior conviction be proven to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt if the existence of that fact serves to increase the statutory maximum penalty for the crime. Cunningham v. California, 549 U.S. 270, 281-82, 127 S.Ct. 856, 864 (2007); Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296, 301, 124S.Ct. 2536-37 (2004); Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. at 490, 120 S.Ct. at 2362-63.
In capital cases, this constitutional mandate has been applied to the finding of aggravating factors necessary for imposition of the death penalty. See Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584, 609, 122 S.Ct. 2428, 2443 (2002); see also Hurst v. Florida,_U.S._ 136 S.Ct. 616, 619, 621 (2016).
Despite the clarity of this Court’s decisions in this area of the la w, the California Supreme Court has repeatedly held that California’s death penalty scheme permits the trier of fact — the jury — to impose a sentence of death without finding the existence of aggravating factors beyond a reasonable doubt and without finding that aggravating factors outweigh mitigating factors beyond a reasonable doubt – two factual findings necessary to imposition of a death sentence under California’s death penalty statute. (See, e.g., People v. Jones (2017); 3 Cal.5th 583, 618-619.
In Hurst v. Florida, the Court applied the mandate of Apprendi and Ring to invalidate Florida’s death penalty statute. In Florida, a defendant convicted of capital murder is punished by either life imprisonment or death.
Hurst, 136 S.Ct. at 620, citing Fla. Stat. §§ 782.04(1)(a), 775.082(1). Under the statute at issue in Hurst, after returning its verdict of conviction, the jury rendered an advisory verdict at the sentencing proceeding, but the judge made the ultimate sentencing determinations. 136 S.Ct. at p. 620. The judge was responsible for finding that “sufficient aggravating circumstances exist” and “that there are insufficient mitigating circumstances to outweigh aggravating circumstances,” which were prerequisites for imposing a death sentence. 136 S.Ct. at 622, citing Fla. Stat. § 921.141(3). The Court found that these determinations were part of the “necessary factual finding that Ring requires” and held that Florida’s death penalty statute was unconstitutional under Apprendi and Ring, because the sentencing judge, not the jury, made a factual finding, the existence of an aggravating circumstance, that is required before the death penalty can be imposed. 136 S.Ct. at 622, 624. In so holding, this Court restated the core Sixth Amendment principle as it applies to capital sentencing statutes: “The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death.” 136 S.Ct. at 619.
Therefore, trial and appellate counsel should continue to challenge the constitutionality of the California death penalty statute.