U.S. judge rules California death penalty system unconstitutional

Reuters
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By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO Calif. (Reuters) - California's system for imposing and carrying out the death penalty is so long and drawn-out that it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and thus is unconstitutional, a federal judge ruled on Wednesday.

Ruling in the case of Ernest Dewayne Jones, who was condemned to death in 1995 and has yet to be executed, Judge Cormac J. Carney of the U.S. Central District of California said that to take "nearly a generation" to decide on Jones' appeals was unconstitutional.

As part of the ruling, Carney vacated the death penalty sentence in Jones' case.

"The dysfunctional administration of California's death penalty system has resulted, and will continue to result, in an inordinate and unpredictable period of delay," Carney wrote in his opinion, filed on Wednesday.

"Allowing this system to continue to threaten Mr. Jones with the slight possibility of death, almost a generation after he was first sentenced, violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment."

Twenty-three people have been executed in the United States so far this year, at a time when the death penalty is under increasing scrutinym according to the non-profit Death Penalty Information Center. Several states, including Maryland, Connecticut and Illinois have recently abolished execution, bringing the total of states that do not impose the death penalty to 18.

Thirty-two others, including Texas, still carry out executions, and legal wrangling in the case of a Missouri man sentenced to die on Wednesday was ongoing by mid-afternoon.

In the California case, Jones was convicted in the 1992 rape and murder of his girlfriend's mother, and later sentenced to death. In 2009, his lawyers asked the court to review the sentence, saying the state's system was unconstitutional.

Since 1978, more than 900 people have been sentenced to death in California, but only 13 have been executed.

In his ruling, Carney said that he was not suggesting that inmates seeking to preserve their lives should not be eligible to appeal their sentences. But he said the state's system caused delays that were so long as to make the sentence arbitrary and unfair.

It was not immediately clear whether the state would appeal the ruling. A spokesman for California Attorney General Kamala Harris said her office was reviewing Carney's ruling, and a spokesman for Democratic Governor Jerry Brown said the governor was not planning to comment.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said Carney's ruling applies only to Jones' case, and would not prevent courts from sentencing people to death in California.

Even so, he said, the ruling was important, because if Carney's ruling is upheld on appeal, it could have a broader impact.

"Others have said the death penalty is not working, but he said it's unconstitutional, that there's no deterrence or retribution 20 years after the crime," Dieter said.

About 3000 people are on death row in the United States, including those in federal and military prisons.

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