Los Angeles Judge Finds California Death Penalty Unconstitutional

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Gurney in seldom-used death chamber at San Quentin State Prison. (Scott Shafer/KQED)
Gurney in seldom-used death chamber at San Quentin State Prison. (Scott Shafer/KQED)

A federal judge in Los Angeles has ruled that California's death penalty is unconstitutional because the "dysfunctional administration" of sentences subjects prisoners to "inordinate and unpredictable" delays of 20 years or more.

U.S. District Court Judge Cormac J. Carney said the state's system of capital punishment results in sentences that "no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: life in prison, with the remote possibility of death." (Emphasis from text of the decision.)

Carney ruled that the system violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. His decision, embedded below, may be appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.In overturning the death sentence a jury imposed on convicted murderer Ernest Dewayne Jones in 1995, Carney noted that only 13 of the more than 900 people sentenced to death in California since the late 1970s have been put to death. "For the random few for whom execution does become a reality," he wrote, "they will have languished for so long on Death Row that their execution will serve no retributive or deterrent purpose and will be arbitrary."

The Jones case is different from two Northern California cases — one in state court, one in federal court — that have essentially put the death penalty on hold because the state's lethal injection method of execution has been found to violate the Eighth Amendment.

Here are the first responses to today's ruling, by way of Maura Dolan of the Los Angeles Times:

Natasha Minsker, a director of the ACLU of Northern California, said Wednesday’s ruling marked the first time that a federal judge had found the state’s current system unconstitutional. She said it was also “the first time any judge has ruled systemic delay creates an arbitrary system that serves no legitimate purpose and is therefore unconstitutional...."

A spokesman for Attorney General Kamala Harris said only that her office was reviewing the decision. Harris has stated she personally opposes the death penalty, though she has vowed to uphold the state's capital punishment law.