Criminal Justice

Federal judge calls 'dysfunctional' California death penalty unconstitutional, gives murderer life

In a first step toward what could eventually become a statewide ban, a federal judge in Santa Ana called the California system of executing inmates “dysfunctional.” Hence, he ruled, the convicted murderer in the case at bar could constitutionally be sentenced only to life without parole.

The Wednesday ruling by U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney is currently precedential only as far as Ernest DeWayne Jones is concerned, but could take on greater significance if it is appealed and upheld. Meanwhile, sweeping language used by Carney, who was appointed to the bench in 2003 by then-President George W. Bush, could be persuasive to judges in other cases, according to the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News.

“When an individual is condemned to death in California, the sentence carries with it an implicit promise from the state that it will actually be carried out,” said the judge in his written opinion. “But for too long now, the promise has been an empty one … it has resulted in a system that serves no penological purpose.”

Carney said statistics show a so-called death penalty imposed by a jury in the state actually creates only a “remote possibility” of execution. Of nearly 900 convicted murderers sentenced to the death penalty since 1978, only 13 have been executed, the judge wrote. Another 94 died while in prison for other reasons and 39 saw their sentences reversed. Of the remaining 748 still on death row, more than 40 percent have been there longer than 19 years.

Meanwhile, the judge said, those on death row spent 23 hours a day in solitary cells.

“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, ” Carney wrote, according to CNN.

The office of Attorney General Kamala Harris had no comment, pending its review of Carney’s ruling, but the state is expected to ask the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overrule, the Mercury News reports.

Jones was convicted and sentenced to death in 1995 for the 1992 rape and murder of a 50-year-old accountant in Southern California.

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