"Justices Unlikely to Smile on Anti-Death Penalty Ruling," is by Marcia Coyle for the National Law Journal.
"It doesn’t totally surprise me that every few years a judge will speak honestly about what's going on," said death penalty litigator Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative. "Although some people would disagree with his legal conclusion, most people don’t disagree with his analysis of how things are functioning."
Carney's decision differed from rulings by other state and federal judges who have identified various problems with death sentences, said Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
"The judge here has pulled together all of the ways the system is dysfunctional," she said. "He is not challenging the policy per se; he is saying that in practice, this isn't working in a constitutional way. His analysis is applicable to the rest of the country. It has implications certainly for the Supreme Court, but also for policy analysis."
Scott Martelle writes, "The real reasons California's death penalty system is so slow," for the Los Angeles Times Opinion LA blog.
A popular argument among the pro-death penalty crowd is that condemned murderers delay justice for years with "Hail Mary" appeals in desperate attempts to evade execution. But what Wednesday’s court decision by federal judge Cormac J. Carney makes clear is that, at least in California, the delays aren’t caused by those trying to stave off execution. They are caused primarily by the state itself. And seeing how many condemned prisoners eventually win reprieves from federal judges, those delays are a good thing.
The ruling by Carney, who found California's administration of the death penalty to be unconstitutional, is here, and you should read it. It’s succinct, with a minimum of the kind of dense legal language that can make some decisions read like they were written in code.
The San Francisco Bay Guardian posts, "San Franciscans could make death penalty ruling stick," by Steven T. Jones.
The decision about whether to file that appeal and possibly a subsequent appeal to the US Supreme Court falls to Attorney General Kamala Harris, who has maintained her opposition to capital punishment since her days as San Francisco’s district attorney, where she bravely endured lots of political heat for refusing to file capital murder charges in the death of San Francisco Police Officer Isaac Espinoza.
San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi today issued a public statement praising yesterday’s ruling and calling for Harris not to appeal it: “Today’s ruling, which found California’s death penalty unconstitutional, is a monumental victory for justice. I commend U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney for his courage and wisdom. Not only is the death penalty arbitrarily imposed, as the judge noted, its history is fraught with racial bias and haunted by the hundreds of death row inmates who were later exonerated. I am hopeful that California Attorney General Kamala Harris will choose not to appeal this decision.”
Harris spokesperson David Beltran told the Guardian that she hasn’t yet made a decision whether to appeal the case: “We are reviewing the ruling.”
Economist Justin Wolfers writes, "Life in Prison, With the Remote Possibility of Death," for the New York Times Upshot blog. There is an infographic at the link.
Judge Carney’s ruling calls into question a delicate political equilibrium that allows the public both to demand that their lawmakers pledge fealty to the death penalty when running for election, while not actually having to stomach the enormous number of executions that a systematic program of capital punishment would entail. The result is that death penalty statutes remain on the books in most states as death row continues to expand, yet relatively few are actually executed.
Some numbers put all this in perspective. The F.B.I. reports there were 14,827 cases of homicide or non-negligent manslaughter in 2012, of which 11,298 occurred in jurisdictions that have the death penalty. Research indicates that around one-fifth to a quarter of these homicides were for capital-eligible crimes, suggesting there were around 2,500 capital-eligible homicides in 2012, which is both high by global standards and much lower than in previous decades.
Yet there were only 45 executions last year. When fewer than one in 50 capital-eligible homicides leads to the death chamber, it is clear that capital punishment is rare.
"A weak opinion striking down California’s death penalty," is by law professor Orin Kerr for the Volokh Conspiracy blawg via the Washington Post. Here's the beginning:
A federal trial judge in California has handed down an opinion, Jones v. Chappell, striking down California’s death penalty. I found the opinion unusually weak, and I thought I would explain why.
Let’s start with the judge’s argument. According to Judge Carney, California’s “death row” is really not death row at all. Once a person is sentenced to death in California, he then spends on average over 25 years fighting his conviction in state and federal court. The direct appeal following conviction usually takes more than a decade; the state habeas process usually takes around 5 years; and the federal habeas process usually takes more than a decade. The state and federal courts usually find ways to invalidate the sentences. But even when the courts don’t ultimately overturn the capital sentence, the execution can’t come until the legal arguments are resolved. Because that process takes around a quarter century or more, being on death row in California is pretty much the same as getting life in prison without the possibility of parole. Indeed, for every one person actually executed, around seven have died of natural causes. Of the 900 individuals that have been sentenced to death in California since 1978, only 13 have been executed. And California has not executed anyone since 2006.
U.S. News & World Report posts, "Should the Death Penalty Be Ruled Unconstitutional?" by Rachel Brody.
But could it reach farther? California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris is likely to appeal the case to the Ninth Circuit, where if upheld, it could head to the Supreme Court. Santa Clara law professor Gerald Uelman told the Los Angeles Times, “It is conceivable that the U.S. Supreme Court and the 9th Circuit could say California is such an outlier — its system is so dysfunctional, with twice the national delay — that it cannot be sustained.”
"Federal Judge Strikes Down California Death Penalty: What This Could Mean for California," is by Courtney Minick for Justia Verdict.
What does this mean for the 748 individuals currently on Death Row? It’s unclear. This decision applies only to the matter at hand, the death sentence of Petitioner Jones. According to press reports, the Attorney General is considering the matter and has not indicated whether she will appeal the ruling. Defendants and Petitioners will certainly cite the holding in their arguments, but other state and federal courts are not bound to follow it.
California, however, seems to be on the precipice of change when it comes to the death penalty. Public opinion has changed dramatically over the past couple of years, both in the state and across the nation. In 2012, a proposition that would have replaced the death penalty with life in prison without parole garnered 48% of the vote. Revelations about the high cost ($4 billion since 1978, and a projected $1 billion over the next five years), structural problems in the system, and the risk of executing an innocent person are leading many citizens away from the death penalty. Stories about botched executions horrify the nation, and many states—including California—are actually enjoined from carrying out executions until new protocols have been adopted. A recent poll shows that 63% of California voters support commutation of the sentences of the entire population of death row to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In 2013, Gallup found that support for the death penalty, nationwide, is at its lowest number in over 40 years.
Judge Carney’s opinion is in line with the direction of public opinion, whether he intended it or not. Regardless of whether his reasoning is upheld on appeal or in subsequent litigation, it could very well signal the imminent demise of the practice in the state.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Matt Mangino posts, "California death penalty struck down."
The most recent Gallup Poll on the death penalty has support at about 60 percent, down from a high in 1994 of 80 percent. That’s not to say that 60 percent is not a significant number or that 32 of 50 states with the death penalty is not a substantial majority. But, unequivocally the death penalty is trending downward.
Earlier coverage of Judge Carney's ruling begins at the link.