U.S. judge rules California death penalty system unconstitutional

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 16, 2014 3:30 PM

SACRAMENTO Calif. (Reuters) - California's system for imposing and carrying out the death penalty is so long and drawn-out that it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and so is unconstitutional, a federal judge ruled on Wednesday.

Ruling in the case of Ernest Dewayne Jones, who was condemned to death in 1995 and has yet to be executed, Judge Cormac J. Carney of the U.S. District Court for the Central California said that to take "nearly a generation" to decide on Jones' appeals was unconstitutional.

As part of the ruling, Carney vacated the death penalty sentence in Jones' case.

"The dysfunctional administration of California's death penalty system has resulted, and will continue to result, in an inordinate and unpredictable period of delay," Carney wrote in his opinion, filed on Wednesday.

"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."

Jones was convicted in the 1992 rape and murder of his girlfriend's mother, and later sentenced to death. In 2009, his lawyers asked the court to review the sentence, saying the state's system was unconstitutional.

Since 1978, more than 900 people have been sentenced to death in California, but only 13 have been executed.

In his ruling, Carney said that he was not suggesting that inmates seeking to preserve their lives should not be eligible to appeal their sentences. But he said the state's system caused delays that were so long as to make the sentence arbitrary and unfair.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)