Often-extensive delays in the state’s system of capital punishment do not constitute cruel and unusual punishment, a federal appeals court panel ruled Thursday in overturning an earlier decision by an Orange County federal judge who called California’s death penalty process “dysfunctional” and unconstitutional.
The appeal, engineered by Attorney General Kamala Harris, stemmed from last year’s Santa Ana federal court ruling that found the state’s death penalty law unconstitutional in the case of defendant Ernest Jones, who was convicted for the 1992 rape and murder of a Southern California accountant.
In the July 2014 decision overturning Jones’ death sentence, U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney ruled the death penalty system was so plagued with delay that a death sentence in California essentially translates to life in prison.
The three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, however, reversed the ruling, saying that while there are often lengthy delays for people sentenced to death, those delays occur to ensure that defendants have every opportunity to have their appeals heard.
“Petitioner argues that he — and all California capital prisoners — belong to a class of persons with the ‘status as individuals whose sentence has been quietly transformed from one of death to one of grave uncertainty and torture…”‘ Judge Susan P. Graber wrote on behalf of the panel. “Petitioner’s expansive description of this exception finds no support in the cases. Nor is it supported by logic.
“… Many agree with petitioner that California’s capital punishment system is dysfunctional and that the delay between sentencing and execution in California is extraordinary,” she wrote. “But the ‘purpose of federal habeas corpus is to ensure that state convictions comply with the federal law in existence at the time the conviction became final, and not to provide a mechanism for the continuing reexamination of final judgments based upon later emerging legal doctrine.’ Because petitioner asks us to apply a novel constitutional rule, we may not assess the substantive validity of his claim.”
Since 1978, 900 people have been sentenced to death in California and only 13 have been executed. California’s death row is said to be the largest in the country.
In his earlier ruling, Carney wrote that the “dysfunctional” administration of the state’s death penalty system has resulted “in an inordinate and unpredictable period of delay preceding their actual execution.”
“Indeed, for most, systemic delay has made their execution so unlikely that the death sentence carefully and deliberately imposed by the jury has been quietly transformed into one no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: life in prison, with the remote possibility of death,” the judge wrote. “As for the random few for whom execution does become a reality, they will have languished for so long on death row that their execution will serve no retributive or deterrent purpose and will be arbitrary.”
Between 1978 and last summer, 94 of the more than 900 inmates sentenced to death have died behind bars before execution could be carried out, according to Carney’s ruling. Thirty-nine inmates won appeals and were not re-sentenced to death. There are 748 inmates on Death Row awaiting execution or rulings on appeals.