Federal Judge Strikes Down Already-Stalled California Death Penalty

Thursday, July 17, 2014

California has not executed a prisoner since 2006 and if a federal judge has his way, it won't be executing any in the near future.

U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney reduced the death sentence of Ernest Dewayne Jones to life in prison on Wednesday after blaming the state for unconstitutionally delaying the death penalty process for years. He noted that only 13 inmates have been executed since 1978 out of 900 who have been sentenced to death.

The George W. Bush-appointed judge disagreed with the common perception that executions have been thwarted by death penalty opponents outside the system, pointing out that the average inmate on Death Row waits three and a half years to get a court-appointed lawyer.

Jones was sentenced to death in April 1995 for the rape and murder of Julia Miller, his girlfriend’s mother. He was on parole for a previous rape. Jones waited four years for a lawyer and another four years for the California Supreme Court to affirm his conviction. That's considerably less than 12-14 years for the average petitioner.

But that was just the appeal of his conviction. He first received counsel to appeal the death sentence in 2000. That appeal was filed two years later, but wasn't rejected by the state High Court, without hearing or briefing, until March 2009.

Jones appealed to the federal courts in March 2010 and expanded his claim three months ago to include arguments that the few inmates put to death are chosen randomly and the executions serve no “penalogical purpose.”

Judge Carney agreed. He said the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment may not be seen by everyone to include the death penalty itself, but “no rational person can question that the execution of an individual carries with it the solemn obligation of the government to ensure that the punishment is not arbitrarily imposed and that it furthers the interest of society.” The judge wrote:

“For all practical purposes then, a sentence of death in California is a sentence of life imprisonment with the remote possibility of death—a sentence no rational legislature or jury could ever impose.”

Around 40% of California’s Death Row denizens have been there for at least 19 years. In contrast, Missouri executed its sixth prisoner this year on Wednesday.

Carney put great stock in the willingness of rational individuals, jurors and legislatures to do the right thing, but court watchers suspect that the appeals court and/or the U.S. Supreme Court might not agree.

In the meantime, California continues to wrestle with overcoming a federal judge's objection in 2006 to the lethal injection procedures used by the state to kill prisoners. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is working on crafting a new protocol after a state appellate court ruled last year that they had not done a very good job to date.  

Capital punishment has a checkered history in California. The state Supreme Court ruled the state’s death penalty law was unconstitutional in 1972, which led to the commutation of 102 death sentences. That saved the lives of Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan. Voters almost immediately passed Proposition 17, reinstating the death penalty.  But in 1976, following U.S. Supreme Court decisions that gutted and then restricted state death penalty laws, the state high court killed California’s again, leading to 68 more prisoners being resentenced.

Voters approved a new, broader death penalty law in 1978 and resumed executions in 1992. Prisoners were given a choice between lethal injection and gas. The gas chamber was ruled cruel and unusual punishment in 1994. California voters rejected abolishing the death penalty in 2012, defeating Proposition 34, 52%-48%.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California Death Penalty System Is Unconstitutional, Federal Judge Rules (by Erik Eckholm and John Schwartz, New York Times) 

Fed Judge Rules CA Death Penalty Unconstitutional (by Celeste Fremon, Witness LA)

California Death Penalty Unconstitutional, Federal Judge Rules (by Howard Mintz, San Jose Mercury News)

Federal Judge Strikes Down California's Death Penalty (by Mollie Reilly, The Huffington Post)

Federal Judge Rules California Death Penalty Is Unconstitutional (by Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times)

3 Ex-California Governors Unite in a Cause: Speedier Executions (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Ernest Dewayne Jones v. Kevin Chappell, San Quentin Warden (U.S. District Court for the Central District of California) (pdf)

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