Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Federal Judge Voids California Death Penalty Law that “Serves No Penological Purpose”

The State of California’s criminal justice system, which in recent years has received increasing scrutiny from the federal courts for what it termed numerous constitutional violations, received yet another setback in a recent federal judge’s ruling that invalidated its “arbitrary” death penalty statute.  U.S. District Court Judge Cormac J. Carney’s recent opinion held that, “arbitrary facts, rather than legitimate ones, determine whether an individual will actually be executed.”

The Court entered its “Order Declaring California’s Death Penalty System Unconstitutional and Vacating Petitioner’s Death Sentence,” in the case of Ernest Dewayne Jones, in his lawsuit against Kevin Chappel, the Warden of the California State Prison at San Quentin.  The judge noted that, “Since 1978, when the current death penalty system was adopted…over 900 people have been sentenced to death…(and) only 13 have been executed.” The system, he said, “has been quietly transformed into one no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: like in prison, with the remote possibility of death.”

He also held that the system, by its uncertainties and delays, means that for the few prisoners who are actually executed under the system that, they will have languished for so long on Death Row that their execution will serve no retributive or deterrent purpose and will be arbitrary…Such a system is unconstitutional.”

The Court’s opinion also notes that of the seventeen prisoners currently awaiting execution, all have been on Death Row for more than 25 years, and some for more than 30. Additionally, not one prisoner has been executed by the state since 2006.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the State of California spends approximately $308 million for each prisoner executed. In fact, many more have died of natural causes or suicide while awaiting execution-79.

This is not the first time that the California death penalty statute or procedures have been criticized. In 2004, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice reported that, “California’s death penalty is dysfunctional.  The system is plagued with excessive delay in the appointments of counsel for direct appeals and habeas corpus petitions, and a severe backlog in the review of appeals and habeas petitions before the California Supreme Court.”        

The judge cited Furman v. Georgia, a 1972 Supreme Court case, in support of its decision.  In Furman, the Court said that the death penalty, as applied by many states, was random in its application, and constituted cruel and unusual punishment barred by the Eighth Amendment, and that there was a risk that “it would be applied in an arbitrary and capricious manner.”  In the current case striking down California’s death penalty statute, the Court has clearly indicated that the current state capital punishment law is also violative of the Eighth Amendment.

See: Jones v. Chappel, U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, 9-CV-2158, (2014).

Additional source: ”Federal Judge Strikes Down California’s Death Penalty,” The Huffington Post, 2014.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Jones v. Chappel