|The death chamber at California's San Quentin prison|
The dysfunctionality of the California death penalty system - where 748 languish- is well established. In a 2008 report the California Commission on the Fair Administration of justice documented it in a comprehensive report. Now a federal judge has declared the system so arbitrary as to be unconstitutional. When New Jersey repealed the death penalty in 2007 former Chief Justice Deboarh Poritz acknowledged that despite the court's rigorous proportionality review it had failed to treat like cases alike. there was no way to explain why some got life in prison and others death. - gwc
Doug Berman reports at Sentencing Law & Policy
A notable new opinion by a (Republican-appointed) federal district judge in California is sure to be the talk of the death penalty community for the forseeable future and is also sure to be the basis for a intriguing coming appeal to the Ninth Circuit (and perhaps the Supreme Court). The opinion inJones v. Chappell, No. 2:09-cv-02158-CJC (C.D. Cal. July 16, 2014) (available for download below), is authored by a GWB-appointee Cormac Carney, and it is described by the judge as an "ORDER DECLARING CALIFORNIA’S DEATH PENALTY SYSTEM UNCONSTITUTIONAL AND VACATING PETITIONER’S DEATH SENTENCE." Here is how the 29-page opinion starts and ends:
On April 7, 1995, Petitioner Ernest Dewayne Jones was condemned to death by the State of California. Nearly two decades later, Mr. Jones remains on California’s Death Row, awaiting his execution, but with complete uncertainty as to when, or even whether, it will ever come. Mr. Jones is not alone. Since 1978, when the current death penalty system was adopted by California voters, over 900 people have been sentenced to death for their crimes. Of them, only 13 have been executed. For the rest, the dysfunctional administration of California’s death penalty system has resulted, and will continue to result, in an inordinate and unpredictable period of delay preceding their actual execution. Indeed, for most, systemic delay has made their execution so unlikely that the death sentence carefully and deliberately imposed by the jury has been quietly transformed into one no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: life in prison, with the remote possibility of death. As for the random few for whom execution does become a reality, they will have languished for so long on Death Row that their execution will serve no retributive or deterrent purpose and will be arbitrary.
That is the reality of the death penalty in California today and the system that has been created to administer it to Mr. Jones and the hundreds of other individuals currently on Death Row. Allowing this system to continue to threaten Mr. Jones with the slight possibility of death, almost a generation after he was first sentenced, violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment....
When an individual is condemned to death in California, the sentence carries with it an implicit promise from the State that it will actually be carried out. That promise is made to the citizens of the State, who are investing significant resources in furtherance of a punishment that they believe is necessary to achieving justice. It is made to jurors who, in exercise of their civic responsibility, are asked to hear about and see evidence of undeniably horrific crimes, and then participate in the agonizing deliberations over whether the perpetrators of those horrific crimes should be put to death. It is made to victims and their loved ones, for whom just punishment might provide some semblance of moral and emotional closure from an otherwise unimaginable loss. And it is made to the hundreds of individuals on Death Row, as a statement their crimes are so heinous they have forfeited their right to life.
But for too long now, the promise has been an empty one. Inordinate and unpredictable delay has resulted in a death penalty system in which very few of the hundreds of individuals sentenced to death have been, or even will be, executed by the State. It 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. Accordingly, the Court hereby VACATES Mr. Jones’s death sentence.
Full opinion: Download Jones Cal DP opinion