Federal Judge Tosses Out the Death Penalty as Unconstitutional

death-penaltyFederal Judge Cormac J. Carney wrote in a decision – that while limited – could have widespread impacts, “On April 7, 1995, Petitioner Ernest Dewayne Jones was condemned to death by the State of California. Nearly two decades later, Mr. Jones remains on California’s Death Row, awaiting his execution, but with complete uncertainty as to when, or even whether, it will ever come.”

“Mr. Jones is not alone,” writes Judge Carney, “Since 1978, when the current death penalty system was adopted by California voters, over 900 people have been sentenced to death for their crimes. Of them, only 13 have been executed. For the rest, the dysfunctional administration of California’s death penalty system has resulted, and will continue to result, in an inordinate and unpredictable period of delay preceding their actual execution.”

He adds, “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. 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.”

Judge Carney ruled that the death penalty is so dysfunctional as to amount to cruel and unusual punishment. Vacating the death sentence of Ernest Jones, who has been on death row for almost 20 years, Judge Carney said the punishment cannot serve the purposes of deterrence or retribution when it is administered to a tiny select few, decades after their sentencing.

Ana Zamora, Death Penalty Policy Director of the ACLU of Northern California told the Vanguard, “This historic ruling further proves that California’s death penalty is broken beyond repair; it is exorbitantly costly, unfair, and serves no legitimate purpose whatsoever. Justice requires that we end this charade once and for all, and replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole.”

The Death Penalty Information Center notes, “Although a District Court’s ruling is applicable to the sole case before it, the court’s rationale would clearly apply to everyone on the state’s death row.”

Judge Carney was an appointee of former President George W. Bush. His ruling can be appealed to the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

He rules, “That is the reality of the death penalty in California today and the system that has been created to administer it to Mr. Jones and the hundreds of other individuals currently on Death Row. 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.”

“No rational person,” Judge Carney wrote, “can question that the execution of an individual carries with it the solemn obligation of the government to ensure that the punishment is not arbitrarily imposed and that it furthers the interests of society.”

Attorney General Kamala Harris’ office did not have an immediate comment. However, Gil Garcetti, a former LA District Attorney who had sought the death penalty numerous times during his tenure, but came out against the death penalty and supported the 2012 campaign, stated that the ruling “further proves that the death penalty is broken beyond repair. It is exorbitantly costly, unfair and serves no legitimate purpose.”

Judge Carney would conclude:

“When an individual is condemned to death in California, the sentence carries with it an implicit promise from the State that it will actually be carried out. That promise is made to the citizens of the State, who are investing significant resources in furtherance of a punishment that they believe is necessary to achieving justice. It is made to jurors who, in exercise of their civic responsibility, are asked to hear about and see evidence of undeniably horrific crimes, and then participate in the agonizing deliberations over whether the perpetrators of those horrific crimes should be put to death. It is made to victims and their loved ones, for whom just punishment might provide some semblance of moral and emotional closure from an otherwise unimaginable loss. And it is made to the hundreds of individuals on Death Row, as a statement their crimes are so heinous they have forfeited their right to life.

“But for too long now, the promise has been an empty one. Inordinate and unpredictable delay has resulted in a death penalty system in which very few of the hundreds of individuals sentenced to death have been, or even will be, executed by the State. 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.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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28 Comments

  1. TrueBlueDevil

    Cormac, Cormac, Cormac … how is not killing someone cruel? And if this delay happens with most prisoners given life, it is not unusual, either.

    Ridiculous.

    1. Davis Progressive

      i have some experience with it. when i was a defense attorney i worked a death penalty case and the guy actually had multiple last suppers, thought he was going to die the next day, and then got a last second reprieve. this was in ohio not california. but how can that not be cruel?

      1. D.D.

        D.P.
        Thank you for your work in Ohio.
        TBD, an indepth look at this experience is available in the two books by Damien Echols, Life After Death and Yours for Eternity.

  2. TrueBlueDevil

    Cormac, Cormac, Cormac … how is not killing someone cruel? And if this delay happens with most prisoners given life, it is not unusual, either.

    Ridiculous.

    1. Davis Progressive

      i have some experience with it. when i was a defense attorney i worked a death penalty case and the guy actually had multiple last suppers, thought he was going to die the next day, and then got a last second reprieve. this was in ohio not california. but how can that not be cruel?

      1. D.D.

        D.P.
        Thank you for your work in Ohio.
        TBD, an indepth look at this experience is available in the two books by Damien Echols, Life After Death and Yours for Eternity.

  3. Davis Progressive

    this ruling really caught me off guard. you can see that the judge is pro-death penalty, but believes the delays in the system are a problem. they are a problem, but streamlining the process will result in more innocent people being executed.

  4. Davis Progressive

    this ruling really caught me off guard. you can see that the judge is pro-death penalty, but believes the delays in the system are a problem. they are a problem, but streamlining the process will result in more innocent people being executed.

  5. TrueBlueDevil

    Does this just cover 1 DP case, or all of them?

    I’ve long thought we should have a 2-track system. When someone has confessed, we have evidence, we have witnesses, maybe multiple victims … speed it along. If a case is based on circumstantial evidence, then maybe we have to put those cases on a slower track.

  6. TrueBlueDevil

    Does this just cover 1 DP case, or all of them?

    I’ve long thought we should have a 2-track system. When someone has confessed, we have evidence, we have witnesses, maybe multiple victims … speed it along. If a case is based on circumstantial evidence, then maybe we have to put those cases on a slower track.

  7. tribeUSA

    TBD–I like your 2-track system idea; wonder if anything like this has been evaluated by legal review professionals? The main reservation I have about the death penalty is the possibility of executing someone who is actually innocent of the crime for which he was convicted.
    I fantasize about a ‘guilty beyond any doubt’ standard that could be used in some cases to supplement the ‘guilty beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard; but my guess is that setting up such an added standard would lead to myriad complexities and would not be feasible.

  8. tribeUSA

    TBD–I like your 2-track system idea; wonder if anything like this has been evaluated by legal review professionals? The main reservation I have about the death penalty is the possibility of executing someone who is actually innocent of the crime for which he was convicted.
    I fantasize about a ‘guilty beyond any doubt’ standard that could be used in some cases to supplement the ‘guilty beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard; but my guess is that setting up such an added standard would lead to myriad complexities and would not be feasible.

  9. D.D.

    It fascinates me that there is so much debate re: assisted suicide and abortion, yet premeditated murder by the state is a-okay in some folks’ eyes.

  10. D.D.

    It fascinates me that there is so much debate re: assisted suicide and abortion, yet premeditated murder by the state is a-okay in some folks’ eyes.

  11. WesC

    The majority of voters in California on several occasions have indicated that they approve of the death penalty. The anti-death penalty crowd have been unable to change public opinion on this, but have indirectly achieved their goal by endlessly appealing every death penalty case and execution procedure to the point to where a death sentence now simply means death by old age.
    An unintended consequence for those inmates who will now probably get their sentence commuted to life without the option of parole will be that the state will no be obligated to pay pay the $50+ million/year cost for appointed attorneys to work on death penalty appeals and habeas corpus petitions. For those very few who are truely wrongly convicted, this means no state funded attorney working to overturn their conviction. Unless they happen to be independently wealthy or have a generous benefactor, the extent of their efforts will be limited to what they themselves can get done by visiting the prison law library.

  12. WesC

    The majority of voters in California on several occasions have indicated that they approve of the death penalty. The anti-death penalty crowd have been unable to change public opinion on this, but have indirectly achieved their goal by endlessly appealing every death penalty case and execution procedure to the point to where a death sentence now simply means death by old age.
    An unintended consequence for those inmates who will now probably get their sentence commuted to life without the option of parole will be that the state will no be obligated to pay pay the $50+ million/year cost for appointed attorneys to work on death penalty appeals and habeas corpus petitions. For those very few who are truely wrongly convicted, this means no state funded attorney working to overturn their conviction. Unless they happen to be independently wealthy or have a generous benefactor, the extent of their efforts will be limited to what they themselves can get done by visiting the prison law library.

  13. Davis Progressive

    “The anti-death penalty crowd have been unable to change public opinion on this”

    what we have seen over the last twenty years is support going from 70% plus for the death penalty to much more evenly split. the costs have been a huge issue, but the idea that endless appeals are frivolous – just remember that many if not most exonerations have occurred 20 years down the line, sometimes 30 years. when these people are on death row, often the exonerations have occurred post-execution.

    “An unintended consequence for those inmates who will now probably get their sentence commuted to life without the option of parole will be that the state will no be obligated to pay pay the $50+ million/year cost for appointed attorneys to work on death penalty appeals and habeas corpus petitions. For those very few who are truely wrongly convicted, this means no state funded attorney working to overturn their conviction. Unless they happen to be independently wealthy or have a generous benefactor, the extent of their efforts will be limited to what they themselves can get done by visiting the prison law library.”

    you’re ignoring how most people end up exonerated, not through the normal appeals process, but through the work of groups like the innocence project. there were a segment of death row families who used this argument, but i always felt like it was a red herring and a very small subsection of the exonoree population.

  14. Davis Progressive

    “The anti-death penalty crowd have been unable to change public opinion on this”

    what we have seen over the last twenty years is support going from 70% plus for the death penalty to much more evenly split. the costs have been a huge issue, but the idea that endless appeals are frivolous – just remember that many if not most exonerations have occurred 20 years down the line, sometimes 30 years. when these people are on death row, often the exonerations have occurred post-execution.

    “An unintended consequence for those inmates who will now probably get their sentence commuted to life without the option of parole will be that the state will no be obligated to pay pay the $50+ million/year cost for appointed attorneys to work on death penalty appeals and habeas corpus petitions. For those very few who are truely wrongly convicted, this means no state funded attorney working to overturn their conviction. Unless they happen to be independently wealthy or have a generous benefactor, the extent of their efforts will be limited to what they themselves can get done by visiting the prison law library.”

    you’re ignoring how most people end up exonerated, not through the normal appeals process, but through the work of groups like the innocence project. there were a segment of death row families who used this argument, but i always felt like it was a red herring and a very small subsection of the exonoree population.

  15. WesC

    I think that you are assuming I am a big proponent of the death penalty, which I am not. I do however think that there are a very small number of crimes that are so heinous that the death penalty is justified. Per the Death Penalty Information Center’s data there have been 3 death penalty exonerations in California for the 41 year interval from 1973 to 2014. The interval between conviction and exoneration for these 3 cases was 5, 14, and 17 years respectively. The idea that there are all of these people sitting in death row in California who were wrongly convicted and executed before being exonerated is not borne out by the numbers.

    I do not think juries will lightly convict someone knowing they could be sentenced to death unless they truly are convinced beyond a reasonable doubt. I also do not think prosecuting attorneys will not seek the death penalty unless there is overwhelming evidence. That being said the tragedy in our criminal justice system today much too often seems to be a win at all costs system rather than get down to the truth of what actually transpired. Per the California Innocence Project’s own data in exonerated cases, over 80% of the 200 wrongful convictions in California occurring over the last 23 years from 1989-2012 were a result of official misconduct, perjury, or false accusations.

    The $50 million in state funds that will not go toward attorney fees for appeals for non-death penalty inmates… is not a legitimate argument for anything. It is merely an unintended consequence that may impact those very few innocent inmates who get their sentence commuted to life without parole. The death row families know how the system works, and the reality is that if their family member is not on death row, there is no glamour in working to exonerate him, and there will be no state funds to pay for it.

  16. WesC

    I think that you are assuming I am a big proponent of the death penalty, which I am not. I do however think that there are a very small number of crimes that are so heinous that the death penalty is justified. Per the Death Penalty Information Center’s data there have been 3 death penalty exonerations in California for the 41 year interval from 1973 to 2014. The interval between conviction and exoneration for these 3 cases was 5, 14, and 17 years respectively. The idea that there are all of these people sitting in death row in California who were wrongly convicted and executed before being exonerated is not borne out by the numbers.

    I do not think juries will lightly convict someone knowing they could be sentenced to death unless they truly are convinced beyond a reasonable doubt. I also do not think prosecuting attorneys will not seek the death penalty unless there is overwhelming evidence. That being said the tragedy in our criminal justice system today much too often seems to be a win at all costs system rather than get down to the truth of what actually transpired. Per the California Innocence Project’s own data in exonerated cases, over 80% of the 200 wrongful convictions in California occurring over the last 23 years from 1989-2012 were a result of official misconduct, perjury, or false accusations.

    The $50 million in state funds that will not go toward attorney fees for appeals for non-death penalty inmates… is not a legitimate argument for anything. It is merely an unintended consequence that may impact those very few innocent inmates who get their sentence commuted to life without parole. The death row families know how the system works, and the reality is that if their family member is not on death row, there is no glamour in working to exonerate him, and there will be no state funds to pay for it.

  17. D.D.

    Again, you may want to read at least one of Mr. Echols’ books. I’d recommend Life After Death.
    I do agree that many wrongfully accused do not get the counsel they deserve. I doubt Mr. Echols would be a free man today if not for the first documentary, his wife’s dillegence, and Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, Natalie Maines, and other wealthy celebrities taking up his cause.
    The Innocence Project and the ACLU are wonderful organizations.

  18. D.D.

    Again, you may want to read at least one of Mr. Echols’ books. I’d recommend Life After Death.
    I do agree that many wrongfully accused do not get the counsel they deserve. I doubt Mr. Echols would be a free man today if not for the first documentary, his wife’s dillegence, and Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, Natalie Maines, and other wealthy celebrities taking up his cause.
    The Innocence Project and the ACLU are wonderful organizations.

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