By Brian Melley
November 12, 2015
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.
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