Originally posted at 1:12 p.m. July 16, 2014. Edited with new details.
A federal court judge in Orange County today declared California's death penalty system unconstitutional, calling its administration so "dysfunctional" that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
In a 29-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, overturned the death sentence of Ernest Dewayne Jones, who was sentenced to death in Los Angeles in 1995 for the killing three years earlier of his girlfriend's mother.
"Nearly two decades later, Mr. Jones remains on California's death row, awaiting his execution, but with complete uncertainty as to when, or even whether, it will ever come," Carney wrote. "Mr. Jones is not alone. Since 1978, when the current death penalty system was adopted by California voters, over 900 people have been sentenced to death for their crimes.
"Of them, only 13 have been executed," he wrote. "For the rest, the dysfunctional administration of California's death penalty system has resulted, and will continue to result, in an inordinate and unpredictable period of delay preceding their actual execution. Indeed, for most, systemic delay has made their execution so unlikely that the death sentence carefully and deliberately imposed by the jury has been quietly transformed into one no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: life in prison, with the remote possibility of death.
"As for the random few for whom execution does become a reality, they will have languished for so long on death row that their execution will serve no retributive or deterrent purpose and will be arbitrary."
Some of the blame is owed to the state's underfunded death penalty system, Carney wrote. Some inmates wait three to five years on average just for an attorney to be appointed to handle their appeal, he noted.
A state bi-partisan commission "found the state's underfunding of its death penalty system to be a key source of the problem. For example, the commission noted that despite the high volume of applicants willing to represent death row inmates from the security of an agency setting, the Office of the State Public Defender's budget has been cut and its staff reduced," Carney wrote.
Orange County Supervisor Janet Nguyen, who is running for state Senate, called on lawmakers and the governor to spend more to improve the legal process for death penalty cases.
"While I strongly disagree with the decision and hope it is overturned on appeal, I urge the Legislature and the governor to immediately work to save and improve the death penalty law to protect it from future judicial edicts," Nguyen said. "Other states have figured this out, so can California."
Since 1978, 94 of the more than 900 inmates sentenced to death have died behind bars before execution could be carried out, Carney wrote. Thirty-nine inmates won appeals and were not re-sentenced to death. There are 748 inmates on Death Row awaiting execution or rulings on appeals.
"As the size of California's death row grows larger and larger, so too do the delays associated with it," Carney wrote. "Of the 748 inmates currently on California's death row, more than 40 percent, including Mr. Jones, have been there longer than 19 years. Nearly all of them are litigating the merits of their death sentence, either before the California Supreme Court or the federal courts."
Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine School of Law, told City News Service that Carney's ruling was a "big deal." The next step legally depends on how the state responds, Chemerinsky said.
"I assume if the governor and attorney general disagree with the ruling then they will appeal to the 9th Circuit," Chemerinsky said.
After that, the U.S. Supreme Court may take up the case, Chemerinsky said.
"I think it's a very courageous ruling based on the facts and the reality," said Chemerinsky, who argued two death penalty cases before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal when he was a professor at Duke University.
"It's a very important and well-reasoned decision," Chemerinsky said. "I think Judge Carney is right that the way the death penalty is administered in California is so arbitrary and capricious as to be unconstitutional."
Los Angeles County's former district attorney, Gil Garcetti, agreed, saying the ruling "proves that the death penalty is broken beyond repair."
"It is exorbitantly costly, unfair and serves no legitimate purpose whatsoever. The only solution is to replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole," Garcetti said.
John Van de Kamp, former state attorney general and chairman of the bipartisan commission cited in Carney's ruling, said recommendations were made to speed up the legal process.
"We provided recommendations to improve the system, including providing funds to hire more attorneys and judges to move cases through the appeals process more quickly," Van de Kamp said. "To date, none of our recommendations have been implemented.
"The facts are overwhelming and clear: California's death penalty system is dysfunctional," he added. "The lack of any meaningful progress to implement the Commission's recommendations over the past six years adds fuel to Judge Carney's decision today."
--City News Service