Release Date: August 26, 2021
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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In a unanimous decision announced today, the California Supreme Court rejected a double-murderer’s claim that the state has misapplied its death penalty law since it was enacted 42 years ago, invalidating every death sentence handed down since 1978.

Specifically, Donte Lamont McDaniel argued that the law required sentencing juries to find each aggravating factor of a murder true beyond a reasonable doubt and find that a death sentence is appropriate beyond a reasonable doubt, but that no court has ever complied with those requirements.

The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation joined People v. McDaniel to encourage a decision rejecting the murderer’s claim, arguing that nothing in the law supports the requirements he seeks.

In the court majority opinion, Associate Justice Goodwin Liu writes, “In sum, having examined our case law and relevant history, we are unable to infer from the jury trial guarantee in article I, section 16 of the California Constitution or Penal Code section 1042 a requirement of certainty beyond a reasonable doubt for the ultimate penalty verdict.” The court cited the CJLF brief and utilized CJLF arguments in its decision. In March 2009, a Los Angeles jury convicted McDaniel of the 2004 murders of Annette Anderson and George Brooks and the attempted murder of Debra Johnson and Janice Williams. At a later sentencing hearing, a separate jury unanimously recommended that he be sentenced to death.

Overwhelming evidence introduced at trial indicated that on April 6, 2004, McDaniel and an accomplice went to the apartment of Annette Anderson in the LA projects looking for George Brooks. McDaniel and his accomplice were members of the Bounty Hunter Bloods (BHB) street gang, a group primarily engaged in drug dealing and murder. A week earlier, Brooks had stolen some drugs from a BHB member, and McDaniel and his accomplice had been dispatched to seek revenge. At the apartment that night were Anderson, Brooks, Williams, and Johnson.

Anderson, 52, was like an older sister to the younger residents in the neighborhood and they often hung out at her apartment. When she answered a knock at her kitchen door, McDaniel and his accomplice stormed in shooting, hitting Williams in the mouth, arms, and legs. Brooks suffered so many fatal gunshots to the head that his face collapsed. Anderson was shot in the head and chest and also died. Debra Johnson was sleeping on the living room floor when she heard gunshots in the kitchen. She opened her eyes to see McDaniel pointing a gun to her head. He shot her in the face and in the chest. She played dead and survived along with Williams. Both women, who were permanently disabled from the shooting, testified at McDaniel’s trial. Both McDaniel and his accomplice and all four shooting victims were African American.

Witnesses testified that after the killings McDaniel bragged about it.

Before the state Supreme Court on direct appeal, McDaniel claimed that California death penalty law discriminates against African Americans and has been misapplied since its adoption in 1978. The American Civil Liberties Union, the California Association of Public Defenders, a group calling itself the California Constitutional Law Scholars, and Governor Gavin Newsom filed briefs in support of the murderer in this case.

In a scholarly amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief, CJLF Legal Director Kent Scheidegger argued that nothing in California legal history, English common law, or the 1978 death penalty ballot measure (adopted by 71% of voters), suggest that jurors are required to find the aggravating factors in a murder case or the appropriateness of a death sentence “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Existing state and federal law requires that a defendant’s guilt be found beyond a reasonable doubt based upon the weight of the evidence. This standard does not fit with judgments that are not findings of fact, including the appropriate sentence for a crime. Nobody knows how a jury would go about sentencing a murderer to death beyond a reasonable doubt.

The CJLF brief noted that McDaniel’s claimed requirement would toss out precedents that go back over 40 years for the aggravating circumstances and decades longer for the penalty verdict based on nothing more than a far-fetched interpretation of an 1872 statute that has never been held to have such an effect before, with a devastating impact on hundreds of well-deserved judgments for horrible crimes.

“Today’s decision upholds the law as written and preserves the sentences of California’s worst murderers, which certainly includes Donte Lamont McDaniel,” said Scheidegger.

CJLF Legal Director Kent Scheidegger is available for comment at (916) 446-0345