|People v. Anderson|
Supreme Court of California
|Argued February 18, 1972
|The use of capital punishment in the state of California was deemed unconstitutional because it was considered cruel and unusual.|
|Majority by: Wright
Joined by: Peters, Tobriner, Mosk, Burke, Sullivan
Dissent by: McComb
|Cal. Penal Code §§ 4500, 1239b; California Constitution Article I section 6|
|California Constitution Article I section 27 (California Proposition 17)|
The People of the State of California v. Robert Page Anderson, 493 P.2d 880, 6 Cal. 3d 628 (Cal. 1972), was a landmark case in the state of California that outlawed the use of capital punishment. It was subsequently overruled by a state constitutional amendment, called Proposition 17.
The case was an automatic appeal to the court under California Penal Code § 1239b, which provides that in the case of a death sentence, the case is automatically appealed to the State Supreme Court.
Robert Page Anderson was convicted of first degree murder, attempted murder of three men, and first degree robbery. The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the lower court in People v. Anderson 64 Cal.2d 633 [51 Cal.Rptr. 238, 414 P.2d 366] (1966), but reversed its decision with respect to the sentence of the death penalty In re Anderson, 69 Cal.2d 613 (1968) following the landmark case, Witherspoon v. Illinois (1968), which decided that it is illegal to remove as challenges for cause a juror who simply disagrees with the death penalty, unless the juror adamantly would not follow the law under any circumstances. The case was retried on the issue of the defendant's penalty, and the jury again returned a verdict of death.
In the original case (1966) the court did not raise the issue as to whether the death penalty was unconstitutional. In the second hearing, which also took place in 1968, the court did raise the issue but decided that the death penalty was neither cruel nor unusual. However, in view of Witherspoon, the court found that the defendant's death sentence was unconstitutionally decided. In this third hearing, the court changed its mind and decided the death penalty was cruel and unusual.
The court ruled that the use of capital punishment was considered impermissible cruel and unusual 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".
Furthermore, the court also cited the view of capital punishment in American society as one of the most important reasons for its acceptability, contending that a growing population and decreasing amount of executions was persuasive evidence that such a punishment was no longer condoned by the general public.
The case also turned on a difference in wording between the U.S. Constitution's 8th Amendment argument against cruel and unusual punishment and Article 1, Section 6 of the California Constitution (the provision has since moved to Article 1, Section 17), which read (emphasis added):
|“||All persons shall be bailable by sufficient sureties, unless for capital offenses when the proof is evident or the presumption great. Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed; nor shall cruel or unusual punishments be inflicted. Witnesses shall not be unreasonably detained, nor confined in any room where criminals are actually imprisoned.||”|
Since the State Constitution prohibits a punishment which is either of the two conditions (as opposed to prohibiting ones that violate both conditions), the court found the penalty unconstitutional on state constitutional grounds since if it violated either provision it was unconstitutional at the state level. The court even went so far as to decline to even consider if the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution since it had already found it to be in violation of the state constitution. The court decided it on 24 April 1972.
The state contended that while the use of capital punishment served no rehabilitating purposes, it was a legitimate punishment for retribution in serious offenses, in that it served to isolate the offender, and was a useful deterrent to crime. The court rejected the state's defense citing that there were far less onerous means of isolating the offender, and the lack of proof that capital punishment is an effective deterrent.
Justice Marshall F. McComb wrote a brief dissent on the basis that the landmark case, Furman v. Georgia 408 U.S. 238 (1972) was currently on the docket of the Supreme Court of the United States and that the court should await its decision before ruling. As it turned out, the U.S. Supreme Court would set aside the question whether the death penalty was per se unconstitutional (later in Gregg v. Georgia it ruled that the death penalty was constitutional).
Effects and aftermath 
The Anderson decision caused all capital sentences in the state of California to be commuted to life in prison. Notably, it is because of this decision that Charles Manson avoided execution following his conviction and resulting death sentence for the "Tate-LaBianca" murders in 1969. Sirhan Sirhan also had his death sentence for the assassination of Robert Kennedy commuted to life in prison. It would also mean that if any person was ever charged with a murder committed in California before 1972, the death penalty could not be imposed. The United States Supreme Court in Aikens v. California, 406 U.S. 813 (1972) denied an appeal of a death sentence because:
|“||[Anderson] declared capital punishment in California unconstitutional under Art. 1, 6, of the state constitution... The California Supreme Court declared in the Anderson case that its decision was fully retroactive and stated that any prisoner currently under sentence of death could petition a superior court to modify its judgment. [Aikens] thus no longer faces a realistic threat of execution... [emphasis added]||”|
Later in 1972, the people of California amended the state constitution by initiative process, superseding the court ruling and reinstating the death penalty. Rather than simply switch to the federal "cruel and unusual" standard, the amendment, called Proposition 17, kept the "cruel or unusual" standard, but followed it with a clause expressly declaring the death penalty to be neither cruel nor unusual.
Due to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Furman later the same year declaring most capital statutes (including the one in California, but excluding others like the one in Rhode Island) in the U.S. to be unconstitutional, plus extensive appellate and habeas corpus litigation in capital cases, no death sentences were carried out in the state until 1992. That year, Robert Alton Harris was executed in the gas chamber.
In a 1978 concurring opinion, Justice Mosk expressed his dismay at the response of the California electorate to Anderson:
|“||The people of California responded quickly and emphatically, both directly and through their elected representatives, to callously declare that whatever the trends elsewhere in the nation and the world, society in our state does not deem the retributive extinction of a human life to be either cruel or unusual. [Citations.]
"Cruelty" is not definable with precision. It is in the eye of the beholder: what may be perceived as cruelty by one person is seen as justice by another. Thus, this court, in ascertaining the permissible limits of punishment, must look in the first instance to those values to which the people of our state subscribe. That as one individual I prefer values more lofty than those implicit in the macabre process of deliberately exterminating a human being does not permit me to interpret in my image the common values of the people of our state.
Anderson's sentence was later commuted, and, in 1976, he was paroled and moved to Seattle.
See also 
- People v. Frierson, 25 Cal. 3d 142, 189 (1978).