The End of the Death Penalty in California?

Last week, Judge Carney in the Central District of California wrote a refreshingly accessible, logical, and just opinion declaring California’s death penalty system unconstitutional.  It is worth reading, but I summarize it briefly below.

In Jones v. Chappell, Judge Carney held that California’s death penalty system violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban against cruel and unusual punishment. Specifically, the court found that the excessive systemic delay between sentence and execution, combined with the infrequency of the punishment actually being administered, creates a system where “a sentence of death . . . is a sentence of life imprisonment with the remote possibility of death—a sentence no rational legislature or jury could ever impose.”

Further, for those who actually are executed, their selection for execution “will depend upon a factor largely outside an inmate’s control… how quickly the inmate proceeds through the State’s dysfunctional post-conviction review process.” Such a system for selecting death-sentenced inmates for execution inflicts the punishment arbitrarily and deprives the penalty of any possible deterrent or retributive purpose. Judge Carney concluded, “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.”

[Photo by California Department of Corrections (http://www.corr.ca.gov/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

This opinion is significant for a few reasons. First, it holds the whole death penalty system in California – not just the execution or sentencing method – unconstitutional. The state would have to change the way death penalty attorneys are appointed and appeals are litigated in order to constitutionally execute a condemned person.

In a strange twist, which may unsettle death penalty opponents excited by this decision, the ruling essentially puts the onus on California to execute its death row population more efficiently. However, given the clear reluctance California has to execute its citizens (as Judge Carney noted, only 13 of 900 death-sentenced inmates have actually been executed since 1978; astonishingly, far more – 22 – have died from suicide), and the money it would take to reconfigure the system, I am hopeful that there simply is not the political will to make such a change.  

The decision is also groundbreaking for its reasoning: to my knowledge, no federal court has ruled that systemic delay in administering the death penalty renders the death penalty system unconstitutional.  In theory, this reasoning is applicable (albeit not binding) in jurisdictions outside California. The Death Penalty Information Center reports that the average time between sentencing and execution in 2012 was almost 16 years.  In 2012, a man in Oklahoma was executed 36 years after his death sentence. Last week’s decision casts doubt on the constitutionality of such significantly delayed executions.  

Finally, it is worth noting that Judge Carney was a George W. Bush appointee and is not known as a particularly liberal or so-called activist judge. The opinion is an example of a common-sense, non-partisan approach to criminal justice, and will hopefully create useful precedent for future decision-makers to follow such an approach, whether they practice in the courtroom, the capitol building, or elsewhere.

California may appeal the decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. My hope is that Attorney General Harris will see today’s decision not as a loss that needs to be vindicated, but as an exposition of a broken system. This brokenness is not a testament to dysfunctional bureaucracy, but a testament to California’s unwillingness to execute its citizens. Our leaders should see it as such and end capital punishment in the state once and for all.

Help Attorney General Harris see it that way by signing this petition urging her not to appeal the decision.