US Judge Rules California Death Penalty Unconstitutional

San Quentin prison Administrative segregation prisoners take part in a group therapy session at San Quentin state prison in San Quentin, California, June 8, 2012.  REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

On April 7 1995, Ernest Dewayne Jones was convicted of first degree murder and rape and sentenced to death by the Supreme Court of California. Nearly 20 years later, he’s still awaiting execution.

Jones is not alone.  According to court documents, more than 900 people have been sentenced to death in California since 1978 and only 13 of them have been executed -- a fact that led an Orange County judge to rule on Wednesday that the state's death penalty law is unconstitutional.

Following a petition filed by inmate Jones against the Warden of California State Prison at San Quentin, U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney concluded that as currently implemented, California’s death penalty law violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. He called the entire system “dysfunctional” and issued an order "vacating petitioner's death sentence."

“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,” court documents state.

Those who will be executed, Carney added in his ruling, “will have languished for so long on Death Row that their execution will serve no retributive or deterrent purpose and will be arbitrary.”

Natasha Minsker, a director of the ACLU of Northern California, told the Los Angeles Times that Carney’s ruling is “the first time any judge has ruled systemic delay creates an arbitrary system that serves no legitimate purpose and is therefore unconstitutional.”

Executions have been on hold in California since 2006, as the state is in the process of implementing a single-drug injection.

As for Jones, as of Wednesday’s ruling, his life will be spared. The state's Attorney General, Kamala Harris, said her office was reviewing the decision.

Carney’s ruling still has a long way to go before it ends capital punishment in California. The decision can be appealed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and could face scrutiny by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Jones vs. Chappell

 

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