By Jonathan Tolliver
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A federal appeals panel showed little appetite on Monday for upholding a lower-court ruling that could potentially overturn California's death penalty, saying a defense attorney's argument had already been dismissed by a state court.
During oral arguments, a lawyer for Ernest Jones, who was sentenced to die in 1995, asked the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to agree with a federal judge's ruling that the death penalty is unconstitutional in California because of the time and uncertainty involved in carrying out such sentences.
U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney last summer had cited the oftentimes decades-long judicial review process involved in putting an inmate to death when he overturned Jones' death sentence, saying it amounted to a violation of the Constitution's prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris appealed, maintaining that the long appeals process represents an important safeguard for the condemned.
California, which has more than 740 prisoners on death row, has not executed a condemned inmate since 2006 and has put 13 people to death since 1978. Several inmates awaiting execution at San Quentin State Prison have been behind bars on death row for more than three decades.
Jones' attorney, Michael Laurence argued that the judge's ruling was supported by a 43-year-old U.S. Supreme Court decision that put a four-year moratorium on the death penalty on the grounds that it was applied inconsistently.
But the justices said that a state appeals panel had already heard and dismissed those arguments and that they were bound to follow the precedent set by its opinion.
A state attorney, meanwhile, said the Supreme Court has never vacated a death sentence based on length. He added that the 1972 ruling had no bearing on Jones’ case, since it addressed the randomness of sentences based on race.
One of the justices, Judge Susan Graber, agreed, saying the case that had been before the Supreme Court was “a completely different issue.”
(Reporting by Jonathan Tolliver in Los Angeles; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Lisa Lambert)