Federal 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