California death penalty: Executions so 'dysfunctional' they're unconstitutional, court rules

Court decision could lead to end of capital punishment in state

Los Angeles

A federal judge in California has ruled that the state’s application of the death penalty is so “dysfunctional” as to be unconstitutional, a decision that could herald the demise of capital punishment in the Golden State.

US District Judge Cormac Carney said on Wednesday that the inmates on California’s death row wait so long for their fate that a death sentence in fact means “life in prison, with the remote possibility of death.” That perpetual uncertainty, he concluded, represents cruel and unusual punishment, which is forbidden by the US Constitution.

The “random few” who do eventually face execution “have languished for so long on Death Row that their execution will serve no retributive or deterrent purpose and will be arbitrary,”  Mr Carney added. The ruling came as he annulled a death sentence handed down to Ernest Jones in 1995 for the rape and murder of his girlfriend’s mother, 50-year-old accountant Julia Miller.

Mr Carney’s decision will now move up the judicial ladder to the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, where, if the ruling is upheld, it could bring an end to capital punishment in California. The state has the longest death row in the US, with more than 900 people sentenced to death here since 1978, when capital punishment was reinstated. Yet only 13 men have actually been executed in that time, the last of whom, Clarence Allen, died  by lethal injection in 2006 after 23 years on death row.

Executions have been stalled in the state since 2006, though California voters decided to keep the death penalty as recently as 2012, when a ballot initiative to abolish capital punishment was narrowly defeated.

Active death penalty states are currently suffering from a severe shortage of lethal injection drugs, caused in large part by an embargo on their export from the EU. The future of the death penalty across the US has recently been called into question, following several botched lethal injections, including that of convicted murderer Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma in April, which President Barack Obama described as “deeply troubling”.

Read more:
In depth: 'I took an oath to defend this guy'
Comment: The reason why drug companies don't want to get involved with death penalty

Overall, the death penalty remains in 32 US states, though just 10 have carried out executions in recent years. US courts imposed 80 death sentences last year, down from 315 in 1994. There were 39 executions in 2013, compared to 98 in 1999. Of the 18 states that have abolished the death penalty, six did so in the past seven years.

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