Hit & Run

California's Death Penalty Struck Down as Unconstitutional for Not Actually Killing People


"Sword of Damocles" not an accepted method of execution.
Credit: sophiahussain / photo on flickr

California's system of justice is slow. It truly is. I've seen it take ages for some basic court cases to get anywhere. For complicated cases, well, when I was a small newspaper editor, I can recall one murder case ultimately being covered by four different reporters at various points due to staff turnover over the years.

So today's U.S. district court ruling declaring California's death penalty to be unconstitutional because it's too slow makes a certain sense, but it does read oddly at first, doesn't it? The case revolves around Ernest Dewayne Jones, who has been on death row since 1995, but obviously is not dead. The judge notes that Jones is not alone:

Since 1978, when the current death penalty system was adopted by California voters, over 900 people have been sentenced to death for their crimes. Of them, only 13 have been executed. For the rest, the dysfunctional administration of California's death penalty system has resulted, and will continue to result, in an inordinate and unpredictable period of delay preceding their actual execution. 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. 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.

As such, U.S. District Court Judge Cormac J. Carney has ruled that the sentence is a violation of Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and has ordered it vacated.

For those who want to lay the blame on those wily, hardened criminals pulling every trick in the book to delay execution, that's not the case. The judge notes that a bipartisan panel has criticized the state's death penalty process as "plagued with excessive delay in the appointments of counsel for direct appeals and habeus corpus petitions, and a severe backlog in the review of appeals and habeas petitions before the California Supreme Court." The state keeps sentencing people to death and then is dragging its feet dealing with the process. Funding cuts to the Office of the State Public Defender are blamed for the limited pool of attorneys available to represent the defendants.

The judge also notes that after this extremely long wait, 60 percent of the handful of defendants (81 of them) who have made it through the whole state appeals process were granted relief from the death sentence once the case was taken up in federal courts.

The ruling is very specific to the nature of the delays in California and thus it's not clear whether the case has implications outside of the Golden State. Certainly it takes years for other states to coordinate their executions, but it's not necessarily the case that California's slow (and extremely expensive! Let's not forget how expensive it is! California's highest public salaries are in the prisons and criminal justice spheres.) process is like those in other states.

And also, before anti-death-penalty advocates celebrate, this ruling is about the process, not the outcome. It is not a judgment against the use of the death penalty. It is a judgment against California's broken system and its inability to apply it fairly and consistently. Of course, given California's inability to fix anything about any of its broken systems of governance, it may end up ultimately killing the death penalty off anyway (such as it is—executions have been on hold for years over concerns about the state's lethal injection system).

Read the judge's ruling here.

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  1. Prison is cruel and unusual punishment. I mean, subjecting people to random beatings and rapes sounds cruel and unusual to me.

    I say back to stocks and the whipping post. Use pain and public humiliation. It's cheaper, and it doesn't involve ass-rape.

    1. And if someone is convicted of a capital crime, hang the motherfucker. On the spot.

      1. Take school kids to throw tomatoes at the people in stocks, and watch people get whipped and hanged. That's a field trip I will fully support.

        1. Yes, I read Starship Troopers.

          1. That was a great movie. I had no idea they did a novelization.

            1. That was a great movie. I had no idea they did a novelization.

              *twitches, shakes*

          2. I never would have guessed.

      2. I still champion for the guillotine. Quick, efficient, very humane, the frogs were onto something with that contraption...

        1. Nah. Too messy.

        2. Why exactly did hangings and firing squads fall out favor? Seems pretty quick, cheap, and effective to me.

          1. Probably because it's quick, cheap, and effective. This is government we're talking about.

          2. If you do hanging wrong, it results in decapitation, firing squads involve guns. It is not a practical objection but an emotional one.

  2. The biggest argument against the death penalty is the utter incompetence of the state in even carrying out that death penalty, let alone the incompetence in the process of arriving at a verdict of a death sentence in the first place. If it can't even get the killing right, how can you possibly think it gets the desire for a verdict of killing right?

    Ser Ilyn Payne would be disgusted.

    1. (opens mouth, makes weird clicking noise)

  3. "The ruling is very specific to the nature of the delays in California and thus it's not clear whether the case has implications outside of the Golden State."

    To the great good fortune of the US, not much CA foolishness is easily exported.

    1. -1 Risk of Cancer

      1. From cell phones?

  4. Executions for some, tiny American flags for others!

    1. I believe I'll vote for a third party.

      1. Go ahead, throw your vote away.

  5. So today's U.S. district court ruling declaring California's death penalty to be unconstitutional because it's too slow makes a certain sense, but it does read oddly at first, doesn't it?

    Not really. "Justice delayed is justice denied", you know.

    Which is a way of saying that due process requires some element of timeliness.

    1. But it's not like the alternative to the death penalty would be freedom, it would be life imprisonment (the sort of next step down). So if your execution doesn't go through in a timely manner, you're not exactly denying justice in any functional way vs. a system where no death penalty existed.

      1. No, but essentially telling a prisoner every so often that tomorrow is the day and then the next day being all "j/k lolz" is cruel.

        1. That's not exactly what was happening.

  6. I'm generally opposed to the death penalty (although not on constitutional grounds as much as policy ones). But I still think a contortion of logic like this makes a mockery of our justice system.

  7. Not that this is technically relevant, but the defendant was a recidivist who was convicted of raping and killing his girlfriend's mother.

    "Two knives were sticking out of Mrs. Miller's neck. She also had 14 stab wounds in her abdomen and one in her vagina, but the fatal stab wound, which penetrated to the spine, was the one in the middle of her chest."

    http://www.leagle.com/decision.....xml/PEOPLE v. JONES

    1. oops -


      (from leagle.com)

      1. (from leagle.com)

        I think we found the person who defiled that nice Mara Salvatrucha Welcome Center in Maryland...

    2. Good thing he's in a box where he can't hurt people anymore then huh?

      1. I'm not even sure I like the death penalty - but I don't like it when the court doesn't even describe the guy's crime. In a collateral proceeding like this, it's not necessary, but a sentence or two about the crime would at least honor the victim's memory.

        1. I'm not even sure I like the death penalty

          You sound very ambivalent about a practice that your papal masters have been adamantly against for a long time (since they stopped being the people in charge of deciding which heretics got the axe, at least).

          1. Well, I hope you're having a nice day, too!

            1. "2267 Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

              "If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

              "Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent." [quoting John Paul II's Evangelium Vitae]"


              1. yPhase keep this bullsh*t off reason. Given its history, the Catholic church has no credibility in questions of morality, decency, or human dignity.

                1. The position of concern-troll who polices libertarian orthodoxy has already been filled. Thank you for sending your resume; we will keep it on file.

            2. I didn't mean to come across as a dick. I usually don't mean to. I simply am a dick.

              But in either event, the point stands. You seem to consider yourself a fairly solid Catholic in practice. While I don't have any qualms with religion in general, Catholicism itself seems anathema to the sort of individualist that is generally attracted to libertarian philosophies.

              1. They're *Catholics*. Hang the code, and hang the rules. They're more like guidelines anyway.

                1. "Hang the code, and hang the rules."

                  And hang the DJ.

                  /panic on the streets of London

      2. Good thing he's in a box where he can't hurt people anymore then huh?

        Except for guards and other prisoners.

  8. The court notes a California death-penalty commission which recommended more funding of the death-penalty system (apparently the only underfunded government program in the state) and having appeals heard by intermediate appeals courts rather than the state's highest court.

    Of course, the reason the California Supreme Court automatically hears all death penalty appeals is because the legislature was trying to devise a system which the federal courts would uphold - Furman declared existing death penalty statutes led to arbitrary results, so a single court supervising the appeals was designed to reduce the arbitrariness. But it seems to have ended up promoting arbitrary delays instead.

    1. "(apparently the only underfunded government program in the state)"

      Why, no, now that you mention it!

  9. "life in prison, with the remote possibility of death"

    Isn't that the sentence for everyone in California?

    1. A quick calculation suggests that death from execution probably does not substantially increase mortality of death row prisoners compared to natural causes for that age group. So you're right, it's the same for everybody.

    2. Ha! I escaped, to Pennsylvania, sort of... I guess.

  10. Oh, and since this is effectively a death penalty thread, I'll suggest my compromise approach between the two sides:

    Death penalty only allowed if the accused has worked for the government (or held elected office, etc.) at some point in their lives.

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