By Sarah Favot, Pasadena Star-News
Posted: 07/16/14, 7:57 PM PDT |

A federal court judge ruled Wednesday that California’s death penalty violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment because long delays create an uncertainty for inmates, who are more likely to naturally die on death row than to be executed.

U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney, who presides in Santa Ana, called the state’s death penalty system “completely dysfunctional.” His decision overturned Ernest Dewayne Jones’ 1995 death sentence. Jones was convicted in the 1992 rape and murder of his girlfriend’s mother, Julia Miller.

“A sentence of death in California is a sentence of life imprisonment with the remote possibility of death — a sentence no rational legislature or jury could ever impose,” Carney, a President George W. Bush appointee, wrote. “In California, the execution of a death sentence is so infrequent, and the delays proceeding it so extraordinary, that the death penalty is deprived of any deterrent or retributive effect it might once have had.”

More than 900 people have been sentenced to death in California since 1978, when the state’s current system was adopted by voters. Only 13 have been executed. There have been no executions in California since 2006.

On average, California’s post-conviction appeals process takes 25 years or more. That’s nearly twice the national average, Carney wrote.

Of the 748 inmates on death row today, just 17 have completed the post-conviction review process, according to the ruling. More than 40 percent of the state’s death row inmates have been there longer than 19 years.

Carney said arbitrary factors — such as the length of the appeals process — are not dependent on “legitimate factors” like the nature of the crime or when the death sentence was imposed.

“For Jones to be executed in such a system, where so many are sentenced to death but only a random few are actually executed, would offend the most fundamental of constitutional protections — that the government shall not be permitted to arbitrarily inflict the ultimate punishment of death,” Carney wrote.

A spokesman for state Attorney General Kamala D. Harris said the ruling is under review.

If the state appeals the ruling through the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and that court affirms the ruling, the ruling would apply throughout the state, according to former L.A. County District Attorney Gil Garcetti. If the state does not appeal, the ruling only applies to Jones’ case.

Garcetti, who has become an anti-death penalty activist, called the ruling surprising and historic.

“To my knowledge, no federal court in the country has ever declared a particular state death penalty law unconstitutional on these kind of grounds,” said Garcetti, whose offices prosecuted a number of death penalty cases.

“It is basically saying to the state you haven’t provided the resources and ability to handle these cases in the proper fashion and that amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. I would add it is also cruel and unusual punishment to the families of the murder victim.”

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