California's Death Penalty Declared Unconstitutional

Unlike many recent death penalty rulings, the decision wasn't focused on the method of execution, but on the fact that executions in California are so rarely carried out. The last was in 2006.

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California is among the states where - courts have ruled against executing inmates on death row because of the method of execution. Now a federal judge has declared the death penalty unconstitutional not because of how executions are done but because here in California, they are so rarely carried out. Here's NPR's Ina Jaffe.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: There's an old saying in California that a prisoner facing execution is more likely to die of old age first. While there are nearly 750 inmates on death row, the state hasn't put anyone to death since 2006. That's because an earlier court ruling found that California's method of execution was likely to be drawn out and painful, making it cruel and unusual punishment. But that's not the reason that U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney gave yesterday when he ruled against the law, says Loyola University law professor Lara Bazelon. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We mistakenly refer to Loyola Law School as Loyola University Law School]

LARA BAZELON: His finding is that the imposition of the death penalty in California is arbitrary because it happens to so few people because the process is as badly funded as it is.

JAFFE: Bazelon says the judge found that state funding was so inadequate, it had constitutional consequences.

BAZELON: It has to do with how long it takes for the person to get an appellate lawyer in the state court once they're convicted. It has a lot to do with how slow the state court process is.

JAFFE: In fact, the prisoner Ernest Dewayne Jones was originally sentenced to death in 1995 for the rape and murder of his girlfriend's mother. Judge Carney noted that since voters reinstated the death penalty in California in 1978, more than 900 people have been sentenced to death but only 13 have been executed. And he found that which inmate is ultimately put to death is based on arbitrary bureaucratic factors rather than the crime committed or the date of sentence. California's death penalty, wrote Carney, has been transformed into a punishment that no rational jury or legislator would ever impose - life in prison with a remote possibility of death.

MATT CHERRY: We're all watching with great interest to see what happens next.

JAFFE: That's Matt Cherry, executive director of Death Penalty Focus, an anti-death penalty organization.

CHERRY: I feel that it's very hard to respond to this judgment in any way other than accepting that yes, the dental penalty system is broken. So when other lawyers make the same argument on behalf of their clients on death row, it'll be very hard to rule against them.

JAFFE: But some death penalty supporters think Judge Carney got it exactly backwards. Kurt Scheidegger is the legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.

KURT SCHEIDEGGER: The delays that he point out certainly are a travesty, but they're not a violation of the rights of the defendant. They're a violation of the rights of the victim - the victim's family.

JAFFE: Judge Cormac Carney was appointed to the bench by former President George W. Bush. His ruling is narrow. It does not find execution itself to be unconstitutional, just California's way of carrying it out. Attorney General Kamala Harris has not set yet whether she will appeal the ruling. The law professor Lara Bazelon expects her to.

BAZELON: And if I were them, I would challenge the notion that the process is arbitrary. I think the acceptance of that argument is somewhat novel and that the Ninth Circuit should not adopt the reasoning.

JAFFE: In the meantime, little may actually change in California. The state still does not have a court sanctioned method of execution, and there are no prisoners currently scheduled to die. Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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Correction July 28, 2014

We mistakenly refer to Loyola Law School as Loyola University Law School.

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