As my colleague Matt Coker reported earlier, a Santa Ana-based federal judge this week ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in the case of convicted rapist/murderer Ernest Dewayne Jones.
Though other federal judges in more liberal settings have made similar rulings in the past, the decision by U.S. District Court Judge Cormac J. Carney won national headlines perhaps because of the conservative nature of Orange County and the Republican judge's lifetime appointment by execution-happy President George W. Bush.
What hasn't won attention is the fascinating backdrop to Carney's ruling.
In January, Jones' three-person legal team filed a 316-page petition containing 30 claims to overturn a jury's 1995 death penalty decision that put the criminal on Death Row inside San Quentin State Prison.
The claims involved allegations of ineffective defense counsel, prosecutor misconduct, the killer's mental handicaps, juror bias, insufficient evidence, botched jury instructions and introduction of unnecessarily inflammatory trial evidence (gory crime scene photos).
But Carney wasn't exactly impressed.
On April 14, he advised the defense in writing how to win the case.
"This court believes petitioner may have a viable claim for habeas relief based on the long delay in the execution of his death penalty sentence as a result of the extremely protracted nature of post-conviction proceedings in the state and federal court in his case, coupled with the grave uncertainty of not knowing whether his execution will ever, in fact, be carried out," the judge opined.
Carney ordered Jones' defense team to file a new brief based on his assistance and then–voila!–determined the new argument–his own–was valid to overturn the punishment.
Over the years, the judge–a former star UCLA football player–has developed a courthouse reputation for going easy on violent, African American pimps and ultra-wealthy, white collar crooks.
Since Jones' arrival on Death Row 19 years ago, California has executed 14 inmates, 23 committed suicide and 68 others died of natural causes or were murdered.