Federal Judge Holds California’s Death Penalty Unconstitutional

Author: Wendy Hillger

The Honorable Cormac J. Carney ruled on July 16, 2014 that the death penalty system in California is unconstitutional.  In a 29-page opinion, Judge Carney noted the system in California serves no penological purpose because of the extended period of time it takes to enforce it.  Most Death Row inmates die of natural causes rather than at the hands of the state.  There are nearly 750 inmates currently on Death Row, including San Quentin’s Ernest Dewayne Jones, the petitioner in this case.  Given the problems with lethal injections, executions have been halted in California since January 2006.

The case at present only gives a reprieve to inmate Jones, but an appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals by the Attorney General Kamala Harris is under review.  A statewide order could come from the Ninth Circuit, and then the case could make its way to the United States Supreme Court.  The death penalty was ruled unconstitutional in 1972 by the U.S. Supreme Court, but the Court later reinstated capital punishment nationwide four years later.  Thereafter, the voters of California have instituted capital punishment three times.

If affirmed, Judge Carney’s ruling could end capital punishment in the state (temporarily if not permanently).  Inmates on California’s Death Row, including Polly Klaas’ and Laci Peterson’s killers as well as other notorious serial killers, could see their penalties commuted to life in prison sentences.

We do not take a position on capital punishment.  However, we do note that appeals in civil lawsuits take over 12 months to adjudicate.  All appeals in death penalty cases are automatically presented to the California Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court, like other courts, are struggling to keep up with the pace of cases filed.  It is axiomatic that removing the need to review prisoner death penalty appeals would speed up all other appeals.

The United States District Court for the Central District of California opinion can be found here.

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