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California Death Penalty Ruled 'Unconstitutional'

Federal judge says long waits for appeals decisions combined with occasional killings amounts to 'cruel and unusual punishment.'

(Photo: Scott Lenger / Flickr Creative Commons)

A federal judge on Wednesday ruled that California's death penalty system violates the U.S. prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishment" because rampant delays in appeals decisions coupled with sporadic executions create an "arbitrary" and unfair system of justice.

The ruling is a response to a challenge by Ernest Jones, who has been on Death Row in California for nearly two decades, and commutes his death sentence to life in prison without parole.

Orange County U.S. District Court Judge Cormac J. Carney—a George W. Bush appointee—wrote Wednesday that the state's "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 continues, "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."

The small number of people who have been executed were forced to remain on Death Row for so long their killing was "arbitrary" and "random," argues Carney.

No one has been executed in California since 2006, following a ruling by another federal judge that California's lethal injection processes put people at high risk of an agonizing execution. Yet 748 people in the state remain on Death Row, at a significant cost to taxpayers.

Natasha Minsker, director of the ACLU of Northern California, told the Los Angeles Times that Wednesday's decision marks the "first time any judge has ruled systemic delay creates an arbitrary system that serves no legitimate purpose and is therefore unconstitutional.”

The ruling can be challenged in the 9th circuit court of appeals.


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