Rose Bird BACK

Legal Technicalities

Pro   Con

All of the opinions issued by the justices of the California Supreme Court in death penalty cases are based on precedents that were established in the opinions of U.S. Supreme Court justices, judges in other states, and in the writings of legal scholars.1 It is not the state Supreme Court's job to decide whether or not a defendant is guilty: with few exceptions the court's role is limited to determining whether or not the correct legal rules and principles were used when the case was decided in the trial court.2 In addition, when convictions and death penalties are overturned, the defendant is retried. No defendant in a death penalty case whose conviction or penalty was reversed by the Bird court is out of prison. The California Supreme Court does not overturn death sentences based on "technicalities." It does so on the basis of existing laws. For example:

  1. In People v. Armendariz, the court unanimously overturned the defendant's death sentence because the jury was not instructed that it had to find that the defendant intended to kill his victim. This decision followed a precedent established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982 (Enmund v. Florida).3

  2. In People v. Mozingo, in a unanimous decision written by former Justice Frank Richardson, the court overturned the conviction of Mozingo because of the inadequacy of his trial lawyer. Even though Mozingo had an 11-year history of mental illness, his lawyer failed to investigate any possible defense based on this ground.4

  3. In People v. Easley and People v. Lanphear, the court reversed the defendant's sentences based on U.S. Supreme Court precedents established in Lockett v. Ohio (1978) and Eddings v. Oklahoma (1982). In Eddings, it was ruled that a jury cannot be forbidden from "considering as a mitigating factor any aspect of a defendant's character or record...that the defendant proffers as a basis for a sentence less than death." Two previous California Supreme Court decisions, made well before the inception of the Bird court, had also established that juries in California could not be forbidden from considering sympathy factors favorable to the defendant [People v. Polk (1965) and People v. Friend (1957)]. In both the Easley and Lanphear cases, a trial judge had instructed the jury that "you must not be influenced by pity for a defendant... You must not be swayed by mere sentiment, conjecture, sympathy, prejudice, public opinion, or public feeling."5

Chief Justice Bird has stated that she will vote to affirm a death penalty as long as the case meets the requirements of due process and the Constitution. She said "[T]he court is ensure that, when you execute somebody here in California, you can sit there with a clear conscience and know that the person was executed not to re-elect a justice, not to ensure that the judicial branch of government is popular, but the person was executed under a constitutional law after a fair trial."6


Chief Justice Bird has taken the law into her own hands by going out of her way to find, and in some cases invent, legal technicalities that result in reversals of death sentences,7 and has thereby stepped outside her proper judicial role.8 In some of the most notorious decisions made during Chief Justice Bird's tenure, the court:

  1. In People v. Armendariz, concocted a new requirement that made it necessary for prosecutors to prove that a defendant intended to kill his victim before the defendant would be eligible for the death penalty. Armendariz's death sentence was reversed by the court based on this rule, even though he stabbed his victim 17 times.9

  2. In People v. Mozingo, the court reversed Mozingo's conviction because his attorney was found incompetent for not investigating the possibility of an insanity defense for him. The decision has completely boxed in defense attorneys because it enables the court to find them incompetent whenever it wishes. Mozingo, who had previously been convicted of a knife-point rape of a 14-year-old girl, raped and murdered his stepmother.10

  3. In People v. Easley and People v. Lanphear, the court reversed the defendant's convictions in both cases because the jury was not told that it could consider sympathy for the defendant.11

AMA Commentary

In reference to the statement made in the pro argument about the status of death penalty case defendants who have had their conviction and/or penalty reversed, we have verified that none are out of prison.

In reference to the con argument regarding the case of People v. Armendariz, the California Supreme Court did not "concoct" a new requirement in reversing the defendant's death sentence. Supporters of the Briggs initiative, in their ballot pamphlet argument, stated that, "The person must have intentionally aided in the commission of a murder to be subject to the death penalty."12

In the Armendariz case, the court reversed the special circumstances finding based on two prior California Supreme Court decisions [Carlos v. Superior Court, 35 Cal 3d 131 (1983); and People v. Garcia 36 Cal 3d 539 (1984)] In Carlos v. Superior Court, the U.S. Supreme Court's 1982 ruling in Enmund v. Florida (458 US 782) was cited as precedent. In Enmund, the high court ruled that (under the federal constitution) it was unconstitutional to give a death sentence to the get-away driver in a murder-robbery case, since the driver did not intend to kill the victim (the driver's accomplice committed the murder). The Garcia ruling applied the Carlos standard to all pending appeals. Chief Justice Bird's supporters claim that without the Carlos and Garcia decisions, the entire 1978 death penalty statute would have been vulnerable to constitutional challenges.13 Chief Justice Bird's opponents claim that the Carlos/Garcia rule has resulted in unnecessary death penalty reversals and retrials.14 In November 1985, Justice Malcolm Lucas said that although in the past he had felt compelled to reverse cases based on Carlos/Garcia, he would no longer do so.15

In reference to the con argument regarding the Easley and Lanphear decisions, in both People v. Easley and People v. Lanphear the California Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the defendant's convictions. Easley's death sentence was reversed on a 6-1 vote, while Lanphear's was reversed 5-1. Easley has since been resentenced to death, while Lanphear is currently serving a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.

1 Wild, Michael, "Retain All the Justices," reprinted from the Los Angeles Times in campaign literature distributed by Californians to Defeat Rose Bird, VA A 13.
2 "Let the Record Reflect," op. cit., p. 1.
3 Ibid. p. 31.
4 Ibid., p. 46.
5 Ibid., pp. 27-28 and 41-42.
6 Los Angeles Times, "California Death Penalty is 'Alive and Well,' Bird Says" by John Balzar and Keith Love, July 29, 1986, I:3.
7 Will, George F., "Voting on Bird: Good Use for a Bad Idea," supra.
8 Moore, Michael, "Rose Bird Should Go," editorial in Los Angeles Times, July 31, 1985, II: p. 5.
9 "Prosecutors' White Paper on the Supreme Court Confirmation Election," op. cit., pp. 4-5.
10 Ibid., p. 25.
11 Ibid., p. 5.
12 California Ballot Pamphlet, General Election, November 7, 1978, p. 35, signed by John V. Briggs, Donald H. Heller, and Duane Lowe.
13 "Let the Record Reflect," op. cit., p. 31.
14 "Prosecutors' White Paper on the Supreme Court Confirmation Election," op. cit., p. 5.
15 Los Angeles Times, "Death Penalty Stance Changes," by Dan Morain, November 20, 1985, I:p. 1.