Calif.'s Death Penalty Unconstitutional, Federal Judge Rules

By Brett Snider, Esq. on July 17, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A federal district judge has ruled that California's death penalty system is unconstitutional, ironically because Death Row takes too long.

U.S. District Court Judge Cormac J. Carney determined in Jones v. Chappell that the massive delays in the Golden State's administration of the death penalty violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Reuters reports that since 1978, only 13 convicts have been executed in California, while more than 900 were sentenced to death.

Is waiting too long for the death penalty in California really unconstitutional?

California's History With the Death Penalty

This isn't the first time a court has struck down California's death penalty. Back in 1972, the state's Supreme Court ruled the death penalty was unconstitutional in People v. Anderson; lawmakers made changes to the death-penalty law and re-enacted it in 1977.

After more than a dozen executions, a federal judge took issue with the state's method of lethal injection in 2006. California's death penalty has been on hold ever since.

As many states have recently chosen to outlaw the death penalty, some Californians have attempted to take the issue to the voters. But a proposed death-penalty ban was defeated at the ballot box in 2012.

That brings us to the case that led to Judge Carney's ruling in Jones v. Chappell.

Cruel and Unusual Delay?

It may seem odd that a Death Row inmate would complain about the delay in his death sentence, but that's Ernest Dewayne Jones' case. Jones had been condemned to death in 1995, but still remained on Death Row after 19 years. A quick read of the California Department of Corrections' Death Row Condemned Inmate Summary reveals that around 40 percent of Death Row inmates have been waiting for at least 19 years.

With these delays, Judge Carney characterized California death penalties as more like "life in prison with the remote possibility of death." Because delay was so unpredictable and inordinate, it essentially makes a lottery out of Death Row, Carney explained. It also diminishes the deterrence and retributive purposes of capital punishment if it takes generations to effectively carry out a sentence.

For these reasons, Judge Carney found the death penalty system in California to serve "no penological purpose" and was therefore unconstitutional. It's unclear yet whether this district court ruling legally binds the whole state, but it was at least effective in vacating Jones' death sentence.

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