Can We Kill California’s Death Penalty?

In a move that stunned legal experts, U.S. District Court Judge Cormac J. Carney ruled California’s death penalty unconstitutional over the summer, in a decision that could have far-reaching effects across the state’s justice system. His ruling in the case of Ernest D. Jones, who has been on California’s death row for almost 20 years, argued that the extensive delays inherent in California’s death penalty system violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. If the case stands up to judicial review, it would mean that the entire state’s justice system has been thoroughly legally condemned, and that the death penalty may have experienced its final blow in California. With 748 people waiting on the state’s death row, this could have major implications.

Judge Carney’s ruling only applied to a single, very specific case. He vacated Jones’ death sentence on the grounds that: “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…In California, the execution of a death sentence is so infrequent, and the delays preceding it so extraordinary, that the death penalty is deprived of any deterrent or retributive effect it might once have had. Such an outcome is antithetical to any civilized notion of just punishment.”

His argument cut to the heart of one of the key problems with the administration of the death penalty in California: It takes an extremely long time. In fact, far more inmates have died of other causes on death row than have actually been executed since 1978, when the United States made the death penalty legal again. Death row inmates spend 23 hours a day isolated in their cells, waiting for their sentences to be fulfilled, and their cases can drag on for years between appeals and last-minute stays. The state’s very execution method has also been called into question, with the last scheduled execution being put off due to concerns about the lethal injection protocol (an issue that has also arisen in other states). And, of course, the death penalty is extraordinarily expensive, thanks to the extended time people spend on death row and the costs to the state with respect to their legal appeals, petitions for clemency, and other legally-entitled means for requesting a review of the sentence.

The last person executed was Clarence Ray Allen (76), in 2006, after spending 23 years on Death Row. That’s a generation, as Carney pointed out in his decision. In the span of 23 years, a child can be born, attend school, and graduate from college. Go on to pursue a professional career or more academic training. Start a business or a family. In 23 years, the world can undergo tremendous changes — think of how much technology and society have evolved since the early 1980s and today. Allen had only gone as far as the eighth grade, and his last meal included sugar-free pecan pie and buffalo steak. He committed three terrible murders, and executing him didn’t bring the people he murdered back from the dead, or make good on his deeds.

Death row inmates live in a state of limbo, waiting for a sentence that never comes, and this, Judge Carney feels, is cruel and unusual punishment. From here, the case is likely to be sent to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for review by Attorney General Kamala Harris. If the court agrees with the ruling, it wouldn’t mean an immediate end to California’s death penalty, but it would set a precedent for other inmates to use when filing their own appeals cases. This would also likely push the issue to the Supreme Court, which might well end up determining that California’s death penalty is so dysfunctional that the state has no longer be trusted to administer it. It wouldn’t be the first time California’s prison system has been singled out for attention: Previously, it was under receivership because conditions in California prisons were so poor.

Isn’t it time for California to leave the death penalty behind? There’s a growing movement in a number of states to set capital punishment aside and push for better sentencing options for prisoners. California is often regarded as a particularly forward-thinking, progressive state, but on the issue of prison reform, it’s lagging. California’s prisons are a sprawling, unhealthy mess filled with people in urgent need of medical attention and human rights, and California’s death row is crowded, stressful, and inhumane. The state could choose to be on the right side of history and simply abolish the death penalty, commuting existing death penalty sentences to life without parole, but will it?

This represents an important opportunity for the state, one that will clearly be heavily influenced by the state courts as well as the current government, which is primarily anti-death penalty. Any ban on the death penalty would need to be effectively orchestrated to ensure it couldn’t be easily undone by a conservative government or state assembly, ensuring that it stayed banned, and that California’s prison system saw real reform. This is only a small piece of the puzzle for a state with serious structural problems, but it’s an important piece. People should not be languishing on death row for generations, waiting for appeals to run their course, wonder if, when, and how death will finally come for them.

Meanwhile, San Quentin’s brand new, inmate-built death chamber sits unused.

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Image: Albert V Bryan Federal District Courthouse, Tim Evanson, Flickr