Wednesday, July 16, 2014
In his opinion today in Jones v. Chappell, federal judge Cormac Carney vacated the death sentence of Ernest Dewayne Jones as violating the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Jones was sentenced to death in 1995 and has been on "death row" in California State Prison at San Quentin since then. For Judge Carney, this is precisely the problem. As Carney writes:
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. 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.
[emphasis in original].
Thus, it is not the arbitrariness in the imposition of the death sentence that is unconstitutional, but the arbitrariness in the execution of the death sentence that renders it unconstitutional.
Judge Carney's analysis centered on his finding that of the more than 700 persons presently on California's "death row,"
their selection for execution will not depend on whether their crime was one of passion or of premeditation, on whether they killed one person or ten, or on any other proxy for the relative penological value that will be achieved by executing that inmate over any other. Nor will it even depend on the perhaps neutral criterion of executing inmates in the order in which they arrived on Death Row. Rather, it will depend upon a factor largely outside an inmate’s control, and wholly divorced from the penological purposes the State sought to achieve by sentencing him to death in the first instance: how quickly the inmate proceeds through the State’s dysfunctional post-conviction review process.
Judge Carney then discussed Jones' situation as an example.
To be sure, however, Judge Carney did not view Jones' situation as unique. Indeed, the opinion contains an 18 page color-coded appendix listing the status of more than 500 persons sentenced to death in California between 1978 -1997. Here's a bit of it, with the entry for Ernest Jones:
Thus, Judge Carney's careful reasoning applies to every person sentenced to death in California, even those sentenced more recently. California's Attorney General and Governor now have some serious litigation choices to make.