Robert Page Anderson was convicted of first degree murder, attempted murder of three men, and first degree robbery. The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the lower court in People v. Anderson 64 Cal.2d 633 [51 Cal.Rptr. 238, 414 P.2d 366] (1966), but reversed its decision with respect to the sentence of the death penalty In re Anderson , 69 Cal.2d 613 (1968) following the landmark case, Witherspoon v. Illinois (1968), which decided that it is illegal to remove as challenges for cause, a juror who simply disagrees with the death penalty, unless the juror adamantly would not follow the law under any circumstances. The case was retried on the issue of the defendant's penalty, and the jury again returned a verdict of death.
The court ruled that the use of capital punishment was considered impermissibly cruel and unusual as it degraded and dehumanized the parties involved. Furthermore, the court also cited the view of capital punishment in American society as one of the most important reasons for its acceptability, contending that a growing population and decreasing amount of executions was persuasive evidence that such a punishment was no longer condoned by the general public.
The case also turned on a difference in wording between the U.S. Constititution's 8th Amendment argument against cruel and unusual punishment and Article 1, Section 6 of the California Constitution (the provision has since moved to Article 1, Section 17), which read
All persons shall be bailable by sufficient sureties, unless for capital offenses when the proof is evident or the presumption great. Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed; nor shall cruel or unusual punishments be inflicted. Witnesses shall not be unreasonably detained, nor confined in any room where criminals are actually imprisoned.Since the State Constitution prohibits a punishment which is either of the two conditions (as opposed to prohibiting ones that violate both conditions), the court found the penalty unconstitutional on state constitutional grounds since if it violated either provision it was unconstitutional at the state level. The court even went so far as to decline to even consider if the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution since it had already found it to be in violation of the state constitution.The court decided it on 24 April 1972.
The state contended that while the use of capital punishment served no rehabilitating purposes, it was a legitimate punishment for retribution in serious offenses, in that it served to isolate the offender, and was a useful deterrent to crime. The court rejected the state's defense citing that there were far less onerous means of isolating the offender, and the lack of proof that capital punishment is an effective deterrent.
[Anderson] declared capital punishment in California unconstitutional under Art. 1, 6, of the state constitution... The California Supreme Court declared in the Anderson case that its decision was fully retroactive and stated that any prisoner currently under sentence of death could petition a superior court to modify its judgment. [Aikens] thus no longer faces a realistic threat of execution...
Later in 1972, the people of California passed a constitutional amendment overturning the court ruling and reinstating the death penalty. Due to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Furman later the same year declaring most capital statutes (including the one in California, but excluding others like the one in Rhode Island) in the U.S. to be unconstitutional, plus extensive appellate and habeas corpus litigation in capital cases, no death sentences were carried out in the state until 1992. That year, Robert Alton Harris was executed in the gas chamber.
In a 1978 concurring opinion, Justice Mosk expressed his dismay at the response of the California electorate to Anderson:
The people of California responded quickly and emphatically, both directly and through their elected representatives, to callously declare that whatever the trends elsewhere in the nation and the world, society in our state does not deem the retributive extinction of a human life to be either cruel or unusual. [Citations.] "Cruelty" is not definable with precision. It is in the eye of the beholder: what may be perceived as cruelty by one person is seen as justice by another. Thus, this court, in ascertaining the permissible limits of punishment, must look in the first instance to those values to which the people of our state subscribe. That as one individual I prefer values more lofty than those implicit in the macabre process of deliberately exterminating a human being does not permit me to interpret in my image the common values of the people of our state.