LOS ANGELES (AP) — California's death penalty survived a legal challenge Thursday when a federal appeals court reversed a lower court ruling that had found it was unconstitutional because of excessive delays.
Without discussing the merits of a murderer's claims, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the lower court was barred from considering a novel constitutional theory that found delays in carrying out executions amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney, an appointee of President George W. Bush, ruled last year that California's death penalty was an empty promise with unpredictable delays that led to arbitrary and rare executions that violated the Constitution's Eighth Amendment.
More than 900 people have been sentenced to death in California since 1978, but only 13 have been executed.
The ruling by three justices appointed by Democratic presidents came as the state tries to revive executions that have been stalled nearly a decade and as supporters and opponents of the death penalty take to the streets to get dueling referendums on the state ballot next year.
The appeals court did not address the validity of claims by a Los Angeles man sentenced to die for the 1992 rape and murder of his girlfriend's mother because the lower court applied a new legal theory instead of federal law that existed at the time of his conviction.
"Many agree ... that California's capital punishment system is dysfunctional and that the delay between sentencing and execution in California is extraordinary," Justice Susan Graber wrote. "But 'the purpose of federal (review) is to ensure that state convictions comply with the federal law in existence at the time the conviction became final, and not to provide a mechanism for the continuing re-examination of final judgments based upon later emerging legal doctrine."
The opinion removes another obstacle state officials faced to resume executions at San Quentin State Prison that have been on hold since a different federal judge ordered an overhaul of the state's lethal injection procedures in 2006.
The state is attempting to address those concerns by proposing a single-drug method that would replace multi-drug combinations that have led to problems in several states.
The state has scheduled a hearing on the proposal in January, but there is a nationwide shortage of execution drugs and supporters and opponents of capital punishment don't expect executions to rapidly resume.
Lawyers for inmate Ernest DeWayne Jones said they were disappointed in the ruling Thursday in his case in California and considering their next move as Jones presses his appeals.
Jones could seek review from a larger panel of 9th Circuit justices, the U.S. Supreme Court or even return to state courts with his appeal.
While Carney's decision will not set a precedent, it could have an impact on other judges' reasoning, said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson.
It could also be the basis for appeals by killers convicted in the future, which might force an appellate court to consider whether the California death penalty is unconstitutional.
The court sidestepped that issue in the Jones case by focusing on procedural grounds.
"They stay as far away from the merits of this case as they can," Levenson said. "This doesn't answer the question of whether we have a system that violates the Eighth Amendment."
Attorney Michael Laurence argued on behalf of Jones that inmates can linger on death row 30 to 40 years and it's random which ones are executed, quoting a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court opinion that said being put to death was "as unusual as being struck by lightning."
The state attorney general's office argued that delays in carrying out executions were necessary to ensure fairness.
Decades-long delays in getting inmates to the death chamber could be addressed by voters next year if death penalty supporters gather enough signatures to put a reform measure on the ballot that calls for providing more appellate lawyers and speedier appeals.
Opponents of the death penalty are also gathering signatures for a ballot measure that would ban capital punishment in California. A similar measure was defeated by 4 percentage points in 2012.
Opposition to executions has been gaining traction in some states.
The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled this year that the death penalty served no legitimate purpose. Nebraska lawmakers repealed capital punishment, but death penalty advocates responded with a statewide petition drive that puts the issue to voters a year from now.
Jones, 51, has been on death row two decades for the murder of Julia Miller, who was stabbed 14 times. The paroled rapist was connected to her rape through his DNA and he admitted the slaying.
Jones said the state didn't provide a fair and timely review of his case, the delay exceeded that in other states, and death row's conditions constituted torture.