Today's New York Times reports, "California Death Penalty System Is Unconstitutional, Federal Judge Rules," by Erik Eckholm and John Schwartz.
A federal judge ruled Wednesday that California’s death penalty system is so arbitrary and plagued with delay that it is unconstitutional, a decision that is expected to inspire similar arguments in death penalty appeals around the country.
The state has placed hundreds of people on death row, but has not executed a prisoner since 2006. The result, wrote Judge Cormac J. Carney of United States District Court, is a sentence that “no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: life in prison, with the remote possibility of death.”
That sense of uncertainty and delay, he wrote, “violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.”
About 40 percent of California’s 748 death row inmates have been there more than 19 years.
"US judge rules against California death penalty," is the update AP coverage, by Linda Deutsch.
Carney also wrote that since the current death penalty system was adopted by California voters 35 years ago, more than 900 people have been sentenced to death, but only 13 have been executed.
"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," the judge stated.
While the decision's only immediate effect was on California, legal experts said it could echo elsewhere as the issues it addresses are in no way unique.
Gil Garcetti, a former Los Angeles County district attorney who has become an anti-death-penalty activist, called the ruling "truly historic."
"It further proves that the death penalty is broken beyond repair," he said.
"Calif. death penalty ruled unconstitutional," is by Michael Winter at USA Today.
Carney, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, declared that "arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed."
That, he said, violates the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The state could appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Attorney General Kamala Harris, a Democrat, is reviewing the opinion, her press secretary said.
"California's death penalty ruled unconstitutional," by Steve Almasy and Ann O'Neill for CNN.
Michael Laurence, executive director of the Habeas Corpus Resource Center and Jones's lead attorney, said he was glad that a federal judge reaffirmed what a state commission found in 2008.
"There is no rational explanation, much less any moral or societal justification, for which people are ultimately executed," Laurence said in a written statement. "The execution of Mr. Jones, and the others like him whose meritorious legal claims have gone unheard for decades, serves no valid state interest."
The executive director of Death Penalty Focus said the law in California needs to be changed.
"Justice requires that we end this charade once and for all," said Matt Cherry. "It's time to replace California's broken death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole. That's the best way to ensure that convicted killers remain behind bars until they die, without wasting tens of millions of tax dollars every year on needless appeals."
Reuters posts, "U.S. judge rules California death penalty system unconstitutional," by Sharon Bernstein.
In his ruling, Carney said that he was not suggesting that inmates seeking to preserve their lives should not be eligible to appeal their sentences. But he said the state's system caused delays that were so long as to make the sentence arbitrary and unfair.
It was not immediately clear whether the state would appeal the ruling. A spokesman for California Attorney General Kamala Harris said her office was reviewing Carney's ruling, and a spokesman for Democratic Governor Jerry Brown said the governor was not planning to comment.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said Carney's ruling applies only to Jones' case, and would not prevent courts from sentencing people to death in California.
Even so, he said, the ruling was important, because if Carney's ruling is upheld on appeal, it could have a broader impact.
"Death Penalty Ruled Unconstitutional In California," is by AFP (Agence France Presse), via Business Insider.
Diann Rust-Tierney, head of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, welcomed the ruling.
"This is really significant given that the dealt penalty in the US is coming under increasing scrutiny," she said.
"In California, the reality is that the system is so dysfunctional that people on death row are being submitted to torture." She said it was all the more important given that Carney is a conservative judge, nominated by former president George W. Bush, who was not opposed to the death penalty.
"Federal judge says California’s death penalty system is ‘unconstitutional’," is by Mark Bermanfor the Washington Post.
California has the largest number of inmates on death row, but it does not carry out nearly as many executions as the states that have fewer people there. The state had 742 people on its death row at the beginning of 2014, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, significantly more than Florida (410 inmates), Texas (278 inmates) and Missouri (48 inmates). But California has not executed anyone this year — the state hasn’t put an inmate to death since 2006 — while Florida and Texas have each put seven inmates to death and Missouri has carried out five executions.
Since 1976, California has executed 13 people. This number is relatively low, trailing 16 other states over that span. Texas, which executes the most inmates annually, has put at least 13 people to death in each of the last four years and has executed 515 people since 1976. (California, one of 32 states in the U.S. that has the death penalty, executes inmates with lethal injection unless an inmate asks for the gas chamber.)
"California's Death Penalty Declared Unconstitutional," is by Ina Jaffe for NPR Morning Edition. There is audio at the link.
Unlike many recent death penalty rulings, the decision wasn't focused on the method of execution, but on the fact that executions in California are so rarely carried out. The last was in 2006.
The Central District of California ruling in Jones v. Chappell is available in Adobe .pdf format.
Earlier coverage of the California ruling begins at the link. Next, California coverage of the ruling.