SAN FRANCISCO — In a major victory for prosecutors, the state Supreme Court on Monday set aside a far-ranging inquiry ordered by the old court into whether death sentences in California were being improperly imposed by race.
The justices granted a petition submitted by Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp and Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner urging an end to the investigation in the wake of a ruling last spring by the U.S. Supreme Court rejecting statistical data as a means of showing racial discrimination in capital cases.
The state court, in an action signed by the five justices appointed by Gov. George Deukmejian, vacated an order issued in May, 1984, by the court under former Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird calling for a special inquiry into claims by a condemned murderer that death sentences were being issued unconstitutionally on the basis of the race and sex of the killer and the victim.
Lawyers for the defendant in the case, Earl Lloyd Jackson, argued among other things that capital punishment was more often sought when victims were white and assailants were black.
Jackson, who is black, was convicted and sentenced to death for the murders of two elderly white women in Long Beach in 1977. He is one of six capital defendants whose death sentences have been upheld by the state Supreme Court since the death penalty was reinstated in California in 1977. Further appeals are under way in all six cases.
One of Jackson's court-appointed attorneys, Joseph Shemaria of Beverly Hills, said the action came as "frankly, no surprise."
"I was expecting the worst, so I can't say I was disappointed," Shemaria said. "The issue we raised is for now a dead issue--and it's going to be hard to resuscitate."
Under appointment by the court, retired state Appellate Justice Bernard Jefferson began a fact-finding proceeding three years ago, ordering state and local prosecutors to produce records in thousands of homicide cases.
In June, after Bird and two other justices defeated in the fall election had left office, Van de Kamp, Reiner and other prosecutors asked the new court to abandon the inquiry. They said that the cost of the investigation had already exceeded $1 million and that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last April had effectively settled the issue.
The federal court, acting in the case of Georgia death-row inmate Warren McClesky, held that statistical data showing racial disparities in death sentences was not sufficient to show bias without proof that the defendant himself suffered discrimination.
McClesky had based his appeal largely on a study in Georgia indicating that the murderers of whites are more likely to receive the death penalty than the killers of blacks.
In Monday's action, the state court said lawyers for Jackson were free to bring a new challenge to the defendant's death sentence, but only if it was "not inconsistent" with the McClesky decision.
The court directed Jefferson to hold a hearing within 90 days on the remaining issues in the case, which include a contention by Jackson that in earlier proceedings he had been deprived of effective assistance of counsel.
The order was signed by Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas and Justices Edward A. Panelli, John A. Arguelles, David N. Eagleson and Marcus M. Kaufman.
Prosecutors involved in the Jackson case welcomed the action, saying it virtually ruled out any broad-based racial challenge to the death penalty in California in the near future.
Van de Kamp said, "We believe this is an appropriate result, given the earlier U.S. Supreme Court decision in the McClesky case."
Shemaria said an attempt would be made later to show that Jackson personally was the victim of discrimination when prosecutors asked for the death penalty at his trial for the Long Beach murders.
"Back in those days, they were gung-ho to get the wheels turning under the new death penalty law," he said. "We feel they practiced discrimination in selecting candidates for death-penalty cases."