The Racial Justice Act, a law in California where criminal defendants can challenge their conviction if there is belief that it was decided based on their racial/ethnic identity, was upheld in a state appeals court yesterday.
Introduced by Democrat Assem. Ash Kalra from San Jose, this act had passed in 2021 while making it the most upgraded law that would assist in the process of overturning convictions that had the intention to use racial bias in making the judicial decision, whether it was the judge or the an expert witness. It can also be used to challenge past cases, including death sentences starting in 2023.
After yesterday's 2-1 ruling, the Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles had responded that the state Legislature had the authority to make the choice on whether a criminal trial was not completed with justice due to racist processes. Dissenting opinion argued that the state constitution does not allow lawmakers to decide, only judges such as the California Supreme Court.
Akeem Simmons is the focus of this case that brought up the Racial Justice Act, where he was convicted of murder for a 2018 shooting in Los Angeles, according to news sources. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “Prosecutors said Simmons was angry at a man who had failed to deliver the marijuana he had paid for and tried to shoot him. Simmons denied it, but he was convicted by a jury and sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years.”
The closing argument included the prosecutor describing Simmons of his physical features, being a “light-skinned Black man,” and how he was only known to be Black and not wanting to be learned more about.
Despite his sentencing was three days after the RJ Act was put into effect, there were complications that had arised from his attorney that the defense was not satisfying for his position as a defendant. Both sides had agreed. Even the prosecution had supported that the Act was violated due to comments made on the other end going against Simmons. The appeals court agreed.
“The suggestion that a witness is lying based on nothing more than his complexion is as baseless as it is offensive,” Presiding Justice Arthur Gilbert wrote in the majority opinion. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “The court stopped short of overturning Simmons' conviction and sentence and granting him a new trial, but indicated that was the likely outcome once the case was returned to the trial judge.”
Both Gilbert and Justice Baltodano had agreed that the Legislature had “acted within its law-making authority when it declared (in the Racial Justice Act) that the use of racially discriminatory language in a criminal trial constitutes a miscarriage of justice.”
For the dissenting opinion, Justice Yegan had referred a part of California's Constitution that a conviction cannot be overturned unless, “the court shall be of the opinion that the error complained of has resulted in a miscarriage of justice.”
“The application of this rule involves the exercise of judgment by appellate court justices based upon their legal knowledge and experience,” Yegan wrote. “The Legislature has no comparable knowledge or experience.”
He added on in the dissenting opinion that the evidence was strong and the verdict was not impacted by the prosecutor's comments spoken to the jury about. However, Yegan does not think the ruling will be appealed.
Attorney John Lanahan, who represented Simmons on appeal, has confidence the Racial Justice Act will be upheld.
“I don't see how a court can say the Legislature cannot declare that something is a structural error” requiring reversal of a conviction or sentence, Lanahan said after the ruling. He continued on to say that California law will offer In a that “you can't use these dog whistles to try to infer that someone is guilty.”
Attorney Natasha Minsker, a policy adviser to the advocacy group Smart Justice California who worked for passage of the Racial Justice Act, said Yegan's dissent proves why the act is crucial for the justice system.
“For decades, judges have seen racism and turned away, claiming it is harmless. It is not,” she wrote in an email. “The public's confidence in our judicial system will be strengthened knowing that criminal convictions will now be free of abhorrent bias and discrimination based on race.”