California Federal Judge Rules Death Penalty Unconstitutional

Can Arbitrary and Delayed Enforcement Make the Death Penalty Unconstitutional?

Yesterday a federal judge in the Central District of California held that California’s death penalty is unconstitutional. Basically, the judge held that through a system of delays had made the punishment arbitrary enough to make it “cruel and unusual punishment.”

The inmate in this case, Ernest Jones, had been sentenced to death in 1995. At the time of the federal habeas case, there was still no date for execution. The federal judge’s opinion lists some surprising facts regarding the enforcement of California’s death penalty:

  • Over 900 people have been sentenced to death since 1978;
  • Since 1978, only 13 people have actually been executed;
  • 94 died in prison before the sentence could be carried out;
  • 39 have been granted relief from the death penalty by the federal courts;
  • There are currently 748 people on death row, with their individual appellate cases and habeas petitions moving through the courts;
  • Of the 748 on death row, more than 40% have been there longer than 19 years;
  • More than half of the California death sentences reviewed by the federal courts have resulted in relief from the sentence; and
  • The typical time (perhaps based on 13 executions, but this isn’t clear) for an execution is 25 years after sentencing.

What this actually amounts to, the judge held, is “life in prison, with the remote possibility of death.” But does this make the sentence cruel and unusual? The Court found that the systemic delay in California’s system of review, not some flaw or part of the execution process itself (either lethal injection or the gas chamber) made it unconstitutional. The essence of the Court’s ruling is boiled down to this passage:

It has resulted in a system in which arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed. And it has resulted in a system that serves no penological purpose. Such a system is unconstitutional.

So systemic delay is unconstitutional. But wouldn’t a streamlined and efficient process of executing prisoners without dragging their appeals and habeas petitions out end up wrongfully executing innocent or mentally incompetent people also? In Florida, the legislature enacted a law in 2013 called the “Timely Justice Act” which was designed to speed up the appeals and execution process. In June of this year, the Florida Supreme Court held that this law did not violate either the Florida or Federal Constitution. In contrast to California, Florida has executed 88 people (86 men and 2 women) since 1979.

Of course California will appeal this decision to the Ninth Circuit. But decisions like this one should at least make state question the benefit of having a death penalty when it is so costly, widely imposed yet rarely enforced.