Federal judge rules California's death penalty unconstitutional

A federal judge Wednesday declared California's use of the death penalty unconstitutional.

The state's system violates the ban on cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment, said U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney, because of the lengthy delays built into it.

The court delays, like those in the case of Ernest Dewayne Jones who brought the case to trial, leaves him and others "with complete uncertainty as to when, or even whether, [the execution] will ever come," the judge said. Jones was sentenced to death in 1995 but remained on death row almost two decades later. The ruling also vacated Jones' death sentence. 

In the opinion Carney wrote

"The dysfunctional administration of California’s death penalty system has resulted, and will continue to result, in an inordinate and unpredictable period of delay preceding their actual execution. Indeed, for most, systemic delay has made their execution so unlikely that the death sentence carefully and deliberately imposed by the jury has been quietly transformed into one no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: life in prison, with the remote possibility of death. As for the random few for whom execution does become a reality, they will have languished for so long on Death Row that their execution will serve no retributive or deterrent purpose and will be arbitrary."

The nation's most populous state, California currently has the largest death row (742) among the 32 states that use the death penalty, and is more than double the death row of Texas. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, California's death row constitutes almost a quarter of all those sentenced to capital punishment in the country. Despite that, it ranks 17th in executions since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty after a four-year moratorium. 

Carney also noted that of the 900-plus people that have been sent to death row since 1978, when the state's voters adopted the current system, only 13 have been executed.

Under the current system, once a death sentence is imposed it is automatically appealed the California Supreme Court for review. On average, it takes three to five years for counsel to be assigned to the inmate; in total, 11 to 14 years typically pass before a ruling comes from the state Supreme Court. Because of the delays, Carney said, arbitrary rather than legitimate factors -- such as a crime's nature or the date of the death sentence -- "determine whether an individual will actually be executed." 

"And it has resulted in a system that serves no penological purpose. Such a system is unconstitutional," he said. 

The San Francisco Chronicle reported California's attorney general is reviewing the decision. Any appeal would go to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. 

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here