The following comes from a July 16 story in the New York Times.
A federal judge ruled Wednesday that California’s death penalty system is so arbitrary and plagued with delay that it is unconstitutional, a decision that is expected to inspire similar arguments in death penalty appeals around the country.
The state has placed hundreds of people on death row, but has not executed a prisoner since 2006. The result, wrote Judge Cormac Carney of United States District Court, is a sentence that “no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: life in prison, with the remote possibility of death.”
That sense of uncertainty and delay, he wrote, “violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.”
About 40 percent of California’s 748 death row inmates have been there more than 19 years.
Judge Carney, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, issued the 29-page order vacating the death sentence of Ernest Dewayne Jones, convicted in 1995 of raping his girlfriend’s mother and stabbing her to death.
Calling it “a stunningly important and unprecedented ruling,” Elisabeth Semel, the director of the death penalty clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, law school, said that the “factually dense” and “well reasoned” opinion was likely to be cited in other cases in California and elsewhere.
But its legal sweep will depend on the outcome of the state’s likely appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, she said.
Douglas Berman, a sentencing expert at the Ohio State University law school, said the ruling could generate appeals in any of a dozen states with large backups on death row and no recent executions or infrequent ones, as well as the federal system, which has had no execution in more than a decade.
“California is the most extreme example, but Pennsylvania is pretty darned close,” Professor Berman said. He questioned the logic, however, of granting a prisoner “a windfall” because of a state’s inaction.
Professor Berman suggested that California could address the court’s ruling by saying, “ ‘We’ve got to get our act together and move forward with executions.’ ”
“But,” he added, “that’s a heck of a lot easier said than done.”
California voters affirmed the death penalty by a narrow margin in 2012, with 48 percent of voters favoring replacing it with life in prison without parole. That vote, Professor Berman said, “may reflect that they’re comfortable with a system that doesn’t get around to executing somebody.”
The death penalty has been effectively under a moratorium in the state since 2006, when Judge Jeremy Fogel of United States District Court in San Jose ordered changes in the state’s execution methods. In 2008, Ronald George, then the chief justice of California, called the system for handling appeals in capital cases “dysfunctional….”
To read the entire story, click here.