Stanford Progressive

A Timeline of the Death Penalty in California

By Progressive Editorial Staff, published October, 2011


April 11, 1878: The first recorded execution in what is now California occurs when four Native Americans are shot in San Diego County for conspiracy to commit murder.

February 17, 1972: The CA Supreme Court rules in California v. Anderson that capital punishment is impermissible cruel and unusual punishment as it degraded and dehumanized the parties involved. It held that the penalty is “unnecessary to any legitimate goal of the state and [is] incompatible with the dignity of man and the judicial process”. This leads to 107 sentences being commuted to life without parole, including Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan, Robert Kennedy’s assassin.

June 29, 1972: The US Supreme Court rules 5-4 in Georgia v. Furman that the arbitrary and inconsistent manner in which the death penalty was applied (citing, in particular, racial and geographic disparities) violated the 8th and 14th Amendments and constituted cruel and unusual punishment. This causes a de facto moratorium on capital punishment. throughout the United States

November 7, 1972: Proposition 17 passes, beginning the process of superseding the Anderson ruling by amending the state constitution to reinstate the death penalty. Rather than switch to the federal “cruel and unusual” standard, the amendment keeps California’s “cruel or unusual” standard, but includes a clause expressly declaring the death penalty to be neither.

1976: The US Supreme court affirms the constitutionality of the death penalty so long as the sentencing scheme provide objective criteria to direct and limit sentencing discretion, appellate review of all death sentences. It must also allow the sentencing judge or jury to take into account the character and record of an individual defendant. The next year, the death penalty is reinstated in California.

1978 - Proposition 7 passes, which calls for automatic appeals to the California Supreme Court in cases involving the death penalty. The Court would then directly affirm or reverse the sentence and conviction without an intermediate appeal to the Courts of Appeal.

1992 - Robert Harris is the first individual executed in the state in two decades

1994 – Following a US District court ruling that the gas chamber is cruel and unusual punishment, lethal injection is made California’s default mode of execution.

2006 - US District Court Judge Jeremy Fogel blocks the execution of Michael Morales because of concerns that lethal injection, if administered incorrectly, may result in intense pain that would constitute cruel and unusual punishment This causes a de facto moratorium on the death penalty in California, as no licensed medical professional will perform the procedure.

2010 – A California judge lifts the injunction against lethal injection by certifying new procedures that  are meant to ensure that executions are conducted as painlessly as possible. So far, no executions have taken place since.


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