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For decades, California’s highest court has left it up to individual jurors to decide whether certain circumstances increase the severity of a crime and thereby warrant the death penalty in murder cases that qualify for the ultimate punishment.

On Wednesday, the state Supreme Court heard arguments on a change to that long-standing practice, which could potentially overturn hundreds of death penalty sentences in California.

At issue is how juries review “aggravating” factors — such as whether a crime was gang-related or involved multiple victims. Defense lawyers in the case argued that to ensure equal application of the death penalty, state law and the state Constitution require juries to be unanimous in their reasoning on each factor.

That the court is even considering new requirements is unusual. It has refused to impose them in the past and has even summarily dismissed the kind of arguments presented Wednesday.

 

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