A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that often-extensive delays in the state's system of capital punishment do not constitute cruel and unusual punishment, overturning an earlier decision by Santa Ana-based federal Judge Cormac Carney.
Carney in July 2014 overturned the death sentence of Ernest Jones, who was convicted for the 1992 rape and murder of an accountant, calling California's death penalty process "dysfunctional" and unconstitutional.
"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," Carney wrote. "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."
The judge noted that between 1978 and last summer, 94 of the more than 900 inmates sentenced to death have died behind bars before execution could be carried out. Thirty-nine inmates won appeals and were not re-sentenced to death. There are 748 inmates on Death Row awaiting execution or rulings on appeals.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris appealed Carney's ruling, and the appeals panel sided with her.
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"Petitioner argues that he--and all California capital prisoners--belong to a class of persons with the 'status as individuals whose sentence has been quietly transformed from one of death to one of grave uncertainty and torture and one that no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: life in prison with the remove possibility of death,'" Judge Susan P. Graber wrote on behalf of the panel. "Petitioner's expansive description of this exception finds no support in the cases. Nor is it supported by logic.
"... Many agree with petitioner that California's capital punishment system is dysfunctional and that the delay between sentencing and execution in California is extraordinary," she wrote. "But the 'purpose of federal habeas corpus is to ensure that state convictions comply with the federal law in existence at the time the conviction became final, and not to provide a mechanism for the continuing reexamination of final judgments based upon later emerging legal doctrine.' Because petitioner asks us to apply a novel constitutional rule, we may not assess the substantive validity of his claim."
The Jones case now goes back to the state court.