Who Earns a Death Sentence

California’s death penalty is reserved for the most violent and heinous killers.

In fact: The death penalty is given to less than 2% of all murderers in California.

These murders are so shocking that juries of law-abiding citizens unanimously delivered the sentence.

Murderers who earned their death sentence include:


  • Richard Allen Davis : kidnapped, raped and murdered 12-year-old Polly Klaas.  Learn more
  • Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez : kidnapped, raped, tortured and mutilated 14 people and terrorized 11 more including children and senior citizens.  Learn more
  • Serial Killer Robert Rhoades:  a child rapist, kidnapped 8-year-old Michael Lyons.  Rhoades raped and tortured Michael for 10 hours, stabbing him 70 times before slitting his throat and dumping his body in a river.  Learn more
  • Alexander Hamilton : executed Police Officer Larry Lasater (a Marine combat veteran).  Lasater’s wife was seven months pregnant at the time.  Learn more
  • Spencer Brasure : who tortured former child actor Anthony Guest for hours, electrocuting him with an electric prod, forcing him to eat glass, shoving a broken beer bottle down his throat, stapling his ears and gluing his eyes shut.  He was then driven to Ventura County, doused with gasoline and set on fire.

Before a murderer receives the death penalty, several safeguards are in place to ensure that only the worst of the worst of California’s killers receives this sentence:

The Crime Must Qualify

  • It must be a First Degree Murder ;

There must be a special circumstance in the case.  These special circumstances include such things as:

  • Murder during rape, sodomy or other sexual assault
  • Murder of a child during an act of sexual abuse
  • Torture murder
  • Serial murder
  • Murder of a police officer or firefighter
  • Murder during a robbery,  residential burglary, kidnapping or carjacking
  • Murder committed because of the victim’s race, religion or sexual orientation (hate crime)
  • Murder of a judge, prosecutor or juror
  • Murder by a gang member in furtherance of the gang

  The District Attorney must decide if the death penalty is appropriate

District Attorneys’ Offices throughout this state have comprehensive and rigorous processes in deciding whether to seek the death penalty.  Factors in determining if it is appropriate include such things as:

  • The facts and circumstances of the crime
  • The defendant’s age and criminal history
  • The defendant’s mental health history, if any

  The jury must determine the death penalty is appropriate

In order to receive a death sentence, the 12 members of the jury must  unanimously  decide the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of first degree murder and the special circumstance is true.

Next, during the penalty phase of the trial, the jury then must decide that the aggravating factors in the case outweigh any mitigating factors and the death penalty is warranted.  This jury represents citizens chosen from our communities to determine the appropriate punishment.

The death sentence must be upheld by the trial judge

Before the defendant is sentenced to death, the judge who oversaw the trial must agree that the death penalty is justified.  The judge, sitting as the 13 th  juror, has the power to reduce the sentence to life without the possibility of parole.

Review by appellate courts

When a murderer is sentenced to death, countless other appellate judges review the verdict in order to ensure that the verdict was fair and the defendant received Due Process of law. In many instances, dozens of state and federal judges have reviewed the facts and circumstances of the conviction before a convicted murderer is executed.




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