The Earl Warren Building, home to California Supreme Court, located in San Francisco, California. November 30, 2005. Wikicommons.

July 25, 2019

The California Supreme Court unanimously overturned the death sentence of a white supremacist after finding that the prosecution erred by asking the jury to consider his racist beliefs when deciding whether or not to impose the death penalty. Under the First Amendment, a defendant’s beliefs, no matter how offensive others may find them, cannot be taken into consideration by a sentencing jury or judge. 

Jeffrey Scott Young, was twenty-five when he robbed a parking tollbooth near the San Diego International Airport and, in a moment of panic, open fired on the toll operator and parking lot manager, killing them both. Ten years later, in 2005, Young went on trial for first degree murder, attempted murder, and carjacking. The jury found Young guilty, but were deadlocked on the penalty phase. A second trial was scheduled for 2006. 

At the penalty retrial, the jury heard considerably more detail about Young’s white supremacist beliefs and his racist tattoos, even though there was no evidence that the murders were racially motivated, and Young hadn’t been charged with a hate crime. Because the second jury decided that his crimes merited the death penalty, the case was automatically appealed to the California Supreme Court, where the defendant challenged the prosecution’s legal strategy on First Amendment grounds.

“Although we conclude some of the evidence of defendant’s racist beliefs was relevant to the jury’s determination of the appropriate penalty for defendant’s crime, we agree with defendant that much of this evidence was admitted and used for an improper purpose,” wrote Justice Leondra R. Kruger, who authored the court’s opinion and concluded that the error was prejudicial.

“The prosecutor openly and repeatedly invited the jury to do precisely what the law does not allow: to weigh the offensive and reprehensible nature of defendant’s abstract beliefs in determining whether to impose the death penalty,” wrote Kruger.

The California Supreme Court upheld Young’s murder convictions, but remanded the case for a new penalty determination. 

Los Angeles Times The Washington Post Ruling