People v. Frierson

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People v. Frierson is an August 31, 1979 decision of the California Supreme Court. The court concluded that defendant Lavelle Frierson had been improperly sentenced to death, reversing that conviction. Frierson had been tried and found guilty of murder with various aggravating circumstances.

The decision was unanimous. It was written by Justice Richardson with the concurrence of Bird, Clark, Manuel, Mosk, Newman and Tobriner.

At the time of the decision in the case, California Proposition 7 (1978) had recently been approved by California's voters. Prop 7 broadened the application of the death penalty provisions in California.

The California Supreme Court overturned Frierson's death penalty conviction on the grounds that Frierson's counsel during the trial was inadequate. However, the court took the occasion to consider a separate question that Frierson raised in attempting to overturn his conviction, which is that California Proposition 17 (1972) was invalid.

Was Prop 17 invalid?

The law under which the defendant was convicted was Section 27 of Article I of the California Constitution. The defendant said that Section 27 was invalid. Section 27 resulted from the approval of California Proposition 17 (1972).

Frierson argued that Section 27 is unconstitutional "because it constituted a 'revision' of the state charter rather than a mere 'amendment' thereof."

The court disagreed with Frierson's reasoning, saying:

"As we have recently explained, although the voters may amend the Constitution through the initiative process, a revision may not be achieved in this fashion. (Amador Valley, supra, at pp. 221-229; see Cal. Const., art. XVIII.) As interpreted by defendant, section 27 contemplates "removal of judicial review" of the death penalty from a carefully built state constitutional structure, thereby resulting in "a significant change in a principle underlying our system of democratic government and can only be accomplished by constitutional revision."
"In Amador Valley, we observed that "even a relatively simple enactment may accomplish such far reaching changes in the nature of our {Page 25 Cal.3d 187} basic governmental plan as to amount to a revision. ..." (P. 223.) Section 27, however, accomplishes no such sweeping result. As we have explained, we retain broad powers of judicial review of death sentences to assure that each sentence has been properly and legally imposed and to safeguard against arbitrary or disproportionate treatment. In addition, we possess unrestricted authority to measure and appraise the constitutionality of the death penalty under the federal Constitution, in accordance with the guidelines established by the United States Supreme Court. We are thus led to the conclusion that the constitutional change worked by section 27 is not so broad as to constitute a fundamental constitutional revision."
"Furthermore, in Amador Valley, we cautioned that too strict a construction of the revision rule "would in effect bar the people from ever achieving any local tax relief through the initiative process." (P. 225.) Similarly, the adoption of defendant's position might effectively bar the people from ever directly reinstating the death penalty, despite the apparent belief of a very substantial majority of our citizens in the necessity and appropriateness of the ultimate punishment. Applying a reasonable interpretation, we conclude that article I, section 27, fairly may be deemed a constitutional amendment, not a revision."

Relevance to Prop 8 lawsuits

Main article: Lawsuits, California Proposition 8 (2008)

The Frierson decision lays out some of the parameters that the California court considered when it ruled on the constitutionality of California Proposition 8 (2008). Prop. 8, like Prop 17 in the Frierson case, was legally challenged on the grounds that Prop 8 is a revision, not an amendment.

Legal background

  • February 17, 1972, the state's high court declared an earlier version of the death penalty unconstitutional as constituting cruel or unusual punishment under former article I, section 6 (present § 17), of the California Constitution. (People v. Anderson (1972) 6 Cal.3d 628 [100 Cal.Rptr. 152, 493 P.2d 880].
  • On November 7, 1972 the people responded by adopting, through initiative, a constitutional amendment which added article I, section 27, providing that "All statutes of this state in effect on February 17, 1972, requiring, authorizing, imposing, or relating to the death penalty are in full force and effect, subject to legislative amendment or repeal by statute, initiative, or referendum. The death penalty provided for under those statutes shall not be deemed to be, or to constitute, the infliction of cruel or unusual punishments within the meaning of Article I, Section 6 nor shall such punishment for such offenses be deemed to contravene any other provision of this constitution."
  • In the interim between February and November 1972, the Supreme Court of the United States found in Furman v. Georgia that the imposition of the death penalty under a Georgia statute was invalid as cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the federal Constitution.
  • As a result of the Furman decision, the California State Legislature in 1973 the California Legislature adopted a new death penalty statute in an attempt to craft a death penalty statute that did not run afoul of Furman. This new statute provided for a mandatory death penalty when certain special circumstances were found to exist.
  • In 1976, in a series of five cases, the United States Supreme Court looked at state mandatory death penalty statutes that were similar to the legislation adopted by the California legislature in 1973, and invalidated two of them on the ground that they failed to provide the sentencing authority with the option to impose a sentence other than death, guided by sufficient standards to assure against arbitrariness and discrimination in the application of the death penalty.
  • The California Supreme Court reacted to that in 1976 by declaring California's 1973 mandatory death penalty law to be invalid.
  • In 1977, the Legislature responded by enacting the death penalty statute that came under the court's scrutiny in People v. Frierson.

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