Citing delays, federal judge rules California death-penalty system unconstitutional

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California’s capital punishment system has just been ruled unconstitutional.

Holding that the system violated the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was U.S. District Court Judge Cormac J. Carney, whom President George W. Bush appointed to the federal bench in 2003. According to a Los Angeles Times report, he becomes the 1st federal judge to rule against the state’s system, and also the 1st to hold that systemic delay may constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

Judge Carney set out his reasoning clearly and concisely in today’s 29-page ruling in Jones v. Chappell. In turn, the decision:

► Traced the tangled series of delays that is the state’s system. (Prior posts on that system here, here, and here.) Only 13 of the more than 900 persons whom California jurors have sentenced to death since 1978 have been executed, Judge Carney wrote. The typical time between sentence and execution is 25 years. The judge thus renamed the sentence (his emphasis): “life in prison, with the remote possibility of death.”

► Reiterated U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stewart Potter’s insistence in Furman v. Georgia, the 1972 decision that set in motion a 4-year moratorium on the death penalty, that the Constitution

‘quite simply cannot tolerate the infliction of a sentence of death under legal systems that permit this unique penalty to be so wantonly and so freakishly imposed.’

The ruling recognized that the Court, in Gregg v. Georgia (1976), permitted states to reinstate modified death penalty systems. Even so, Judge Carney wrote:

In the 40 years since Furman, the Supreme Court has never retreated from that fundamental principle.

► Applied the principle to the case at hand, ruling that California’s system is so arbitrary as to serve no proper penological purpose. The judge focused not just on the defendant who must endure a condemned life on death row, but also on jurors who must go through “horrific” evidentiary proceedings to no ultimate end, on victims and  survivors denied “some semblance of moral and emotional closure,” and on “the citizens of the State” of California, who must endure the broken “promise” of retribution that accompanies the imposition of a death sentence.

California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris was reported to be considering the state’s next move in this litigation.

 

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