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Federal Judge Rules Death Penalty Unconstitutional in California Federal Judge Rules Death Penalty Unconstitutional in California

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Federal Judge Rules Death Penalty Unconstitutional in California

The ruling could make its way to the Supreme Court.

The "death chamber" at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Huntsville Unit in Huntsville, Texas.(PAUL BUCK/AFP/Getty Images)

A federal judge has struck down California's death penalty on grounds that the system is so broken, it violates the Constitution.

In his opinion, Judge Cormac Carney said the state's death sentences are not carried out in any reasonable, timely, or organized manner and therefore should be abolished.

"Inordinate and unpredictable delay has resulted in a death penalty system in which very few of the hundreds of individuals sentenced to death have been, or even will be, executed by the state," Carney wrote. "It has resulted in a system in which arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed."


The death penalty has been lawful in California since 1976, when the Supreme Court overturned a national moratorium on the practice. The state has executed only 13 people since the Court's ruling, with the most recent, Clarence Ray Allen, being put to death in 2006.

But California's death-row population has bloated to more 740 prisoners—nearly twice that of any other state. Many of those inmates have been languishing for decades as litigation proceedings drag through the courts.

Under the administration of the state's system the petitioner in the case, Ernest Dewayne Jones, is threatened "with the slight possibility of death, almost a generation after he was first sentenced," Carney wrote.

Such a situation—the prospect of execution lingering for so long while, in practice, it is unlikely to be carried out—violates the Eighth Amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishment, Carney added. The decision vacates Jones's death sentence.

"It is a conclusion that many judges in California in the state and federal court have come to, that the state's death-penalty system is dysfunctional," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "What this judge did was take it a step further and say because it is so unruly … it cannot be applied, that it is wrong to apply such a random and unpredictable punishment to anyone."

Dieter said he expected California to appeal the decision to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and, if upheld, said the case could reach the Supreme Court.

"The implications are far beyond California," Dieter added.

Eighteen states have abolished the death penalty, but a number of others have in place de facto moratoriums. Six states—Texas, Virginia, Oklahoma, Florida, Missouri, and Alabama—have accounted for about two-thirds of all executions since 1972.

In 2012, a proposition to end the death penalty in California was defeated at the polls, with 53 percent of voters turning it down.

Carney's decision comes at a time when the system of administering the death penalty in America is undergoing renewed scrutiny. In April, the botched, prolonged execution of Clayton Lockett made international headlines and prompted the state to review its execution procedures.

A number of active death-penalty states have found it increasingly difficult to secure the lethal-injection drugs necessary to carry out death sentences amid boycotts from European drug manufactures and reticence from licensed physicians.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the number of inmates currently on California's death row.

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