That a federal judge in California has declared the death penalty unconstitutional here is no surprise--a 2006 ruling has put capital punishment on hold in Northern California--but that a federal judge in stodgy old Orange County did caused ripples Wednesday. To be fair, some are ripples of "atta boys" for U.S. District Court Judge Cormac Carney in Santa Ana.
In a 29-page ruling overturning the death sentence of a man accused of killing his girlfriend's mother in Los Angeles in 1992, Carney writes that the prisoner is among more than 900 people who have been sentenced to death in California since the current system was adopted by voters here in 1978.
"Of them, only 13 have been executed," Carney notes. "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. 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."
(No matter where you stand on the issue, that last line is tight.)
Carney's ruling adds a question mark to Orange County death penalty cases, including those of Scott Evans Dekraai, who pleaded guilty in May to being the worst mass killer in Orange County history; Daniel Patrick Wozniak, the community theater actor accused of killing two friends and making it appear one (who was dismembered) murdered the other; and Richard Raymond Ramirez, whose conviction for raping and murdering a 22-year-old woman in Garden Grove was already overturned once.
Of course, whether Dekraai, Wozniak and Ramirez will ever be put to death could also hinge on motions challenging Orange County law enforcement's use of jailhouse informants on those and other defendants represented by counsel.
The many killers Orange County judges and juries have already sent to death row could also be up in the air. I believe I read in the informant coverage that OC has the highest rate of defendants sent to death row, but don't quote me on that.
Among those who came out in support of Carney's ruling, based on the reporting of City News Service, were:
* Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine School of Law: "I think it's a very courageous ruling based on the facts and the reality. It's a very important and well-reasoned decision. I think Judge Carney is right that the way the death penalty is administered in California is so arbitrary and capricious as to be unconstitutional."
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* Los Angeles County's former district attorney Gil Garcetti: The ruling "proves that the death penalty is broken beyond repair. It is exorbitantly costly, unfair and serves no legitimate purpose whatsoever. The only solution is to replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole."
* John Van de Kamp, former state attorney general and chairman of a bipartisan commission that recommended speeding up the death penalty legal process (and was cited in Carney's ruling): "The facts are overwhelming and clear: California's death penalty system is dysfunctional. The lack of any meaningful progress to implement the commission's recommendations over the past six years adds fuel to Judge Carney's decision today."
The Orange County District Attorney's office had no comment, according to the news service.