Federal judge strikes down California’s death penalty

by Mollie Reilly

A federal judge has ruled that California’s death penalty system is unconstitutional.

This is a witness gallery inside the lethal injection facility at San Quentin State Prison pictured when it was new, in September 2010. Surely this expensive space can be put to better use. – Photo: Eric Risberg, AP
This is a witness gallery inside the lethal injection facility at San Quentin State Prison pictured when it was new, in September 2010. Surely this expensive space can be put to better use. – Photo: Eric Risberg, AP

U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney handed down an order Wednesday, finding that the system is arbitrary and in violation of the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment.

“California’s death penalty system is so plagued by inordinate and unpredictable delay that the death sentence is actually carried out against only a trivial few of those sentenced to death,” Carney writes. “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.”

Carney continues: “Inordinate and unpredictable delay … 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. And it has resulted in a system that serves no penological purpose. Such a system is unconstitutional.”

“Today’s ruling, which found California’s death penalty unconstitutional, is a monumental victory for justice,” declared San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi. “I commend U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney for his courage and wisdom.

“Not only is the death penalty arbitrarily imposed, as the judge noted, its history is fraught with racial bias and haunted by the hundreds of death row inmates who were later exonerated. I am hopeful that California Attorney General Kamala Harris will choose not to appeal this decision.”

“Not only is the death penalty arbitrarily imposed, as the judge noted, its history is fraught with racial bias and haunted by the hundreds of death row inmates who were later exonerated. I am hopeful that California Attorney General Kamala Harris will choose not to appeal this decision.” – San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi

The ruling also vacated the death sentence of petitioner Ernest Dewayne Jones (whose middle name has also appeared in news reports as “Dwayne”). Jones was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in 1995.

Capital punishment was ruled unconstitutional by the state’s Supreme Court in 1976 but was reinstated by the state legislature the following year. Since then, 13 prisoners have been executed in California, most recently Clarence Ray Allen in 2006. An analysis by the Los Angeles Times found that the state spent $308 million on each execution.

Read the order here: Jones vs. Chappell.

Mollie Reilly writes regularly for the Huffington Post, where this story first appeared. She can be reached on Twitter @mollieclare. Bay View staff contributed to this story.