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Court Broadens the Penalty

October 15, 1987

The new California Supreme Court, in an opinion by an old member, has changed course on the controversial death penalty issue. The new position has been greeted with satisfaction by those who led the campaign last year to remove three justices from the court, and by many law enforcement officers and prosecutors who felt unduly restrained by restrictions imposed in earlier decisions of the court.

The result will make it easier to impose the death penalty and will expose more felons to the gas chamber. Basically, the California high court has now found, like the U.S. Supreme Court before it, that the death penalty may be imposed in the absence of a finding that the killer intended to kill. This will have an immediate effect on at least 10 cases under appeal and will affect all future capital crime trials.

In our continued opposition to the death penalty, we can only regret this broadened mandate for executions. The penalty of life imprisonment, already in place for the heinous crimes involved, is adequate deterrent and, in our view, a more certain instrument of justice, above all because it avoids the risk of irreversible error that always haunts executions. We remain convinced that the state erodes its own values when it sanctions death, for whatever reason.

We can drawn some comfort from the care with which the new ruling was written. It maintains exacting standards for the courtroom's rules of evidence in capital crimes. It does not appear to dismiss out of hand all of the careful work of the Rose Bird court. It must be remembered that much of the former state Supreme Court's seeming delays and apparent quibbles over the death penalty flowed from a carelessly drawn and deeply flawed initiative approved by the state's voters in their determination to restore capital punishment.

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