UPDATE MAY 27, 2010: The Senate Appropriations Committee did not pass out the bill, which effectively kills it for this session.
The state Senate Public Safety Committee yesterday approved a bill proposing changes in the criminal justice system to ensure that no one is sentenced to die because of race or ethnicity.
Senate Bill 1331, the “California Racial Justice Act,” introduced on Feb. 19 by Sen. Gilbert Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), is modeled after similar legislation already enacted in Kentucky and North Carolina. The Act seeks to remedy a defect in the criminal justice system where the race or ethnicity of the defendant, the victim or the jurors may skew how the death penalty is applied.
Five senators voted in favor of moving the legislation forward: committee chair Sen. Mark Leno, bill author Sen. Gil Cedillo, Sen. Loni Hancock, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Sen. Roderick Wright. Sen. Dave Cogdill and Sen. Bob Huff voted in opposition. The bill, with amendments, will be re-referred to the Senate Committee on Appropriations.
EJS staff attorney Sara Jackson and Aundre Heron of California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty were among those testifying in support of the bill.
“If California continues to impose the death penalty, it is vital that we ensure that the justice system weighs all factors in a case and that no one is sentenced to die because of the race or ethnicity of the individuals involved,” said Sen. Cedillo. “The Racial Justice Act would create a procedure for the court to determine whether race was a significant factor in the decision to seek or impose the death penalty in each case. Procedural hurdles that prevent a full and fair hearing based on racial bias should be eliminated to ensure the integrity of our justice system.”
Research shows that the death penalty is not applied fairly in California. A defendant is three or four times more likely to be sentenced to die in cases where the victim is white than in cases where the victim is African American or Latino. Meanwhile, murder cases in which the victim is African American or Latino often remain unsolved. African Americans have long been over-represented on death row. In recent years Latinos have increasingly been sentenced to death. One California prosecutor testified that it was standard policy in his office to exclude African American women from juries in death penalty cases.
For more information, visit http://equaljusticesociety.org/law/rja.