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, February 29, 2000. 
National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
July 16, 2014, 10:59 a.m.

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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