California is closer than ever to getting rid of the death penalty now that a U.S. district judge has declared capital punishment “unconstitutional.” In his verdict, Judge Cormac Carney vacated a death row inmate’s sentence not just because he feels executions are unfair, but that the state’s current practice of leaving inmates in indefinite limbo, uncertain of whether they will ever be killed or not, amounts to “cruel and unusual punishment.”
The decision is the result of Ernest Jones, a man convicted of raping and murdering his girlfriend’s mother back in 1995, petitioning the court to resolve whether his death sentence is legitimate. Ultimately, Judge Carney agreed that the death penalty is too broken of a system to be fair to Jones.
“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,” wrote Judge Carney. “California’s death penalty is so plagued by inordinate and unpredictable delay that the death sentence is actually carried out against only a trivial few of those sentenced to death.”
Indeed, Jones is not alone in this awkward “we might kill you” waiting period. Over 900 people in California have been sentenced to death since the death penalty was instituted 35 years ago, yet only 13 were ever actually killed by the state.
“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,” Judge Carney noted. He elaborated that the executions that actually took place often came down to a matter of how and when certain inmates’ paperwork was filed.
California currently has 748 inmates sitting on death row, the most of any state in the country. The large number is due in part to the fact that California has not executed someone since 2006 when a judge expressed concern over the humaneness of lethal injections. Though the state made an attempt to execute an inmate in 2010, additional concerns about lethal injections have delayed all executions further.
Although the ruling applies solely to California, the decision could inspire similar change around the country. Given that the problems the judge cited are not specific to one state, it’s plausible that other judges could see it similarly to Carney elsewhere as well.
First, however, it will have to hold up in California. While the ruling will effectively halt executions (which have already effectively been halted, truthfully,) the decision will almost certainly be appealed.
For now, it’s a victory for opponents of capital punishment like Matt Cherry, the Executive Director of Death Penalty Focus. “Justice requires that we end this charade once and for all,” said Cherry. “It’s time to replace California’s broken penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole. That’s the best way to ensure that convicted killers remain behind bars until they die, without wasting tens of millions of tax dollars every year on needless appeals.”
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