SAN FRANCISCO -- The California Supreme Court, with a new conservative majority, yesterday repealed the most important death penalty ruling of its predecessor, declaring that intent to kill is not required for a death sentence.
While unanimously reversing a death sentence in a 1979 Riverside County murder, the court ruled 6 to 1 that a defendant who kills someone unintentionally during any of various felonies, such as robbery, rape or burglary, can be sentenced to death.
The ruling reversed a 1983 decision by the Supreme Court under then-Chief Justice Rose Bird that a jury must find intent to kill before imposing a death sentence. Yesterday's opinion -- written by Justice Stanley Mosk, who voted with the majority in 1983 -- said the Bird court had misinterpreted a 1978 death-penalty initiative.
The 1983 decision was expected to affect as many as 90 cases. It was also one of the key rulings cited by opponents of Bird and two other justices, who were defeated in last November's election after a campaign that focused on the death penalty.
Yesterday's case involved James Phillip Anderson, convicted of kidnaping, robbing and strangling two women in Coachella in March 1979. The court reversed Anderson's death sentence because the jury was told, under another provision of the 1978 initiative, that if Anderson was sentenced to life in prison without parole, the governor could commute the sentence to life with the possibility of parole.
The court left intact its 1984 ruling that such an instruction is misleading in that it prompts the jury to speculate about the governor's future actions.