Federal Judge Declares California's Death Penalty System Unconstitutional

Federal Judge Declares California's Death Penalty System Unconstitutional

In a bold and far-reaching opinion last week, California Federal Judge Cormac J. Carney upended California’s Death Penalty System, finding that it violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Judge Carney entered the ruling in response to the petition for habeas corpus relief filed by Ernest Dewayne Jones, an inmate who had been sitting on California’s Death Row since April of 1995. Jones v. Chappell, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 97254 (C.D. Cal. July 16, 2014).

Judge Carney noted that Jones was one of 900 people who had been sentenced to death since California adopted the current death penalty system in 1978. Of those 900, however, only 13 had actually been executed. “For the rest,” he concluded, “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.

The opinion relied on the findings of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, which had documented the source and nature of the delay in California's death penalty system. After setting out the procedural steps in the post-conviction review process, Judge Carney found that California’s system violated the mandates of Furman v. Ga., 408 U.S. 238 (U.S. 1972). In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the death penalty "could not be imposed under sentencing procedures that created a substantial risk that it would be inflicted in an arbitrary and capricious manner." Moreover, the systemic delay and dysfunction of the current system in California results in the deprivation of any deterrent or retributive effect the death penalty might once have had.

As a result of the ruling, Jones’ conviction was vacated. Although no appeal has yet been filed, a July 17 New York Times article indicated that the California State Attorney General, Kamala D. Harris, was reviewing the decision. 

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