A judge has ruled California’s death penalty unconstitutional, saying lengthy and unpredictable delays have resulted in an arbitrary and unfair capital punishment system.
The decision by US District Court Judge Cormac Carney represents a legal victory for those who want to abolish the death penalty in America’s most populous state and follows a similar ruling that has suspended executions in the state for years.
Judge Carney, in a case brought by a death row inmate against the warden of San Quentin state prison, called the death penalty an empty promise that violates the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
“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,” he wrote.
Since the current death penalty system was adopted by California voters 35 years ago, more than 900 people have been sentenced to death, but only 13 had been executed, the judge wrote.
He noted that death penalty appeals can last decades and as a result most condemned inmates are likely to die of natural causes before their executions are carried out.
Judge Carney said “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”.
Gil Garcetti, a former Los Angeles County district attorney who has become an anti-death penalty activist, called the ruling “truly historic”.
“It further proves that the death penalty is broken beyond repair,” he said, calling for capital punishment to be replaced with “life in prison without the possibility of parole”.
Judge Carney’s ruling came in a legal petition brought by Ernest Jones, sentenced to die in 1994 after being convicted of murdering and raping his girlfriend’s mother.
The ruling could be appealed by the governor or state attorney general, who both oppose the death penalty. For now, Jones will probably remain on death row.
Another federal judge put California’s death penalty on hold in 2006 when he ruled its lethal injection procedures needed an overhaul.
The judge found that the state’s procedures created too much risk that an inmate would suffer extreme pain while being executed. At that time, lethal injections were carried out in San Quentin’s old gas chamber, which the judge found too cramped, too dark and too old for prison staff to properly administer execution drugs.
Since then, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has built a new execution chamber in the grounds of San Quentin and made a number of changes to its procedures to address the judge’s concerns.
A new federal judge has taken over the case and has not ruled on whether those changes are enough to restart executions.
Additionally, the corrections department is drafting a new set of regulations for administering lethal injections. No executions can take place until the new regulations are formally adopted.