A federal judge in California has struck down the state’s death penalty, ruling that the “arbitrariness” and “unpredictability” with which it is carried out violates the constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment.
U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney in Santa Ana, Calif., on Wednesday threw out the death sentence of Ernest Dewayne Jones, who was put on death row by the state in April 1995.
In a strongly worded 29-page ruling, Judge Carney, a George W. Bush appointee, largely sidestepped facts particular to Mr. Jones. Instead, he blasted the entire death-penalty system in California, calling it “plagued by inordinate and unpredictable delay.”
The decision will likely not lead to any immediate changes in regard to the death penalty in California, where no one has been executed since 2006.
But if the state appeals, the issue of whether, and when, problems with a state’s death penalty system can render it unconstitutional will be put squarely in front of a federal appeals court in San Francisco. A ruling from that court – the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — supporting Judge Carney’s could dramatically change the death-penalty landscape throughout much of the western United States.
The judge highlighted a host of statistics concerning capital punishment in the state, including that only 13 of the 900 people sentenced to die since 1978 have been executed.
Wrote Judge Carney: “For Mr. Jones to be executed in such a system, where so many are sentenced to death but only a random few are actually executed, would offend the most fundamental of constitutional protections – that the government shall not be permitted to arbitrarily inflict the ultimate punishment of death.”
A spokesman for Kamala Harris, the California attorney general, said the office was “reviewing the ruling.”
“The federal judiciary has recognized what all persons who have studied the California system have determined: It is arbitrary and capricious, and violates the United States Constitution,” said Mr. Jones’s lawyer, Michael Laurence, in a statement.
For years, critics of the death penalty in California have argued that the system in the state, which often involves numerous appeals and lengthy waits for qualified, court-appointed lawyers, is woefully inefficient.
For instance, a 2011 study co-authored by Arthur Alarcón, a judge on the Ninth Circuit, found California had spent more than $4 billion on capital punishment since it was reinstated in 1978—about $308 million for each of the 13 executions since then.
Wednesday’s ruling takes “such discussions out of the theoretical and into a legal framework,” said Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., an organization largely opposed to how the death penalty is administered in the U.S. “If this gets appealed, it very quickly becomes a pressing issue for the state.”
Thirty-two states currently retain the power to sentence inmates to death. But in recent years capital punishment has faced a host of challenges, from the growing number of exonerations of convicts—often because of new DNA evidence—to shortages of drugs used in lethal injections.
Since 2007, the death penalty has been abolished in six states—Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico and New York.