California’s Death Penalty System Ruled Unconstitutional

The death penalty system in California, which has more inmates awaiting execution than any other U.S. state, was found by a federal judge to be so plagued by unreasonable and unpredictable delay that it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

“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,” U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney in Santa Ana, California, said yesterday in a 29-page ruling throwing out a death sentence imposed in 1995.

Executions in the state have been on hold since 2006 after a different federal judge ruled the lethal injection method was unconstitutional.

California has almost 750 of the more than 3,000 inmates awaiting execution in the U.S., according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. Only 13 executions have taken place since 1976 in California, according to the center, compared with 515 in Texas.

Carney said the California system makes it arbitrary whether a convicted murderer will ever be executed, thereby undermining the penological purpose of the death penalty that a jury carefully and deliberately imposes.

Other States

Other states are also grappling with capital punishment setbacks. Oklahoma officials in April delayed an execution that was scheduled to take place on the same day as a bungled attempt left another inmate convulsing violently before he died of a heart attack. Two weeks later, a federal appeals court put a Texas prisoner’s death sentence on hold while his lawyers pursue their claim that he can’t be killed because he’s mentally disabled.

Of the inmates on death row in California, more than 40 percent have been there longer than 19 years and almost all of them are still fighting their sentence before the California Supreme Court or in federal courts, according to the judge’s ruling yesterday.

Ernest Dewayne Jones, who was sentenced to death in California 19 years ago, first had to wait four years before the state appointed a lawyer to represent him in his appeal, according to yesterday’s ruling.

It then took another four years for the California Supreme Court to affirm the sentence. In a separate habeas corpus petition, which raises different legal issues, Jones had to wait five years to get a lawyer appointed and it took the state high court until 2009 to deny the petition without a hearing, according to the ruling.

Habeas Corpus

Jones then filed a habeas corpus petition to the federal court in 2010, which brought him before Carney.

Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation, and Nick Pacilio, a spokesman for California Attorney General Kamala Harris, each said their offices are reviewing the ruling.

There were 748 inmates, including 20 women, on death row in California as of July 7, according to the corrections department’s website.

On California’s death row, 63 inmates have died of natural causes since 1978 and 22 committed suicide as of March 4, according to the corrections department.

California Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, doesn’t expect to comment on the ruling, spokesman Evan Westrup said.

‘Gathering Momentum’

“I’m hopeful that this decision will quicken the gathering momentum toward abolishing this cruel, inhuman and degrading practice in the United States once and for all,” Steven W. Hawkins, Amnesty International USA’s executive director, said in an e-mail.

Legal executions in California were authorized under the Criminal Practices Act of 1851 and capital punishment was incorporated into the penal code in 1872. The first state-conducted execution was held at San Quentin prison in 1893. A total of 513 state inmates have been executed.

The state’s corrections department drafted new rules for lethal injections following the 2006 ruling that the method in place could subject inmates to excessive pain, according to a statement by the agency.

After further court challenges, a state appeals court in May 2013 ruled that the state’s protocol didn’t meet administrative requirements, the agency said. The court blocked the state from carrying out any more executions until new regulations are approved.

The case is Jones v. Chappell, 09-cv-02158, U.S. District Court, Central District of California (Santa Ana).

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.