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Ninth Circuit Reverses Habeas Relief in California Death Penalty Case

On November 12, 2015, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals delivered a setback to death penalty abolitionists by reversing a grant of habeas corpus relief to a California prisoner who argued that the state’s post-conviction process in capital cases violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. In a habeas petition brought by death-sentenced prisoner Ernest DeWayne Jones, the district court had held that “systemic delay and dysfunction” rendered the process so arbitrary that it violated the Eighth Amendment.

Attorneys representing Jones, who has spent over two decades on death row, had successfully argued that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972) applied – persuading the district court that death row prisoners “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.”

The district court also wrote that “where the State permits the post-conviction review process to become so inordinately and unnecessarily delayed that only an arbitrarily selected few of those sentenced to death are executed, the State’s process violates the Eighth Amendment. Fundamental principles of due process and just punishment demand that any punishment, let alone the ultimate one of execution, be timely and rationally carried out.” See: Jones v. Chappell, 31 F.Supp.3d 1050 (C.D. Cal. 2014).

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit found the district court had erred by failing to give proper weight to precedential decisions specific to the highly-circumscribed habeas corpus procedural process. The case of Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989), the Court of Appeals said, “generally prohibits federal courts from announcing a new rule of constitutional law in a habeas case,” reversing the district court’s finding that this case did not establish a new rule but instead only applied commonly-held due process and fair punishment arguments.

The appellate court also noted that for a habeas case to be reviewed by a federal court, all state court remedies must be exhausted or an exception for failing to exhaust sustained; however, the Ninth Circuit held that “This case warrants the exercise of our discretion to address Teague without considering the parties’ arguments concerning exhaustion.”

“Moreover,” the Court of Appeals continued, “the very nature of Petitioner’s claim is that constitutional harm flows from the delay inherent in judicial proceedings,” but the Court found that the case of People v. Semaneau, 355 P.3d 384 (Calif. 2015), applied. In Semaneau, the California Supreme Court held that delays inherent in the capital punishment process did not constitute Eighth Amendment violations. The appellate court concluded that although California’s death penalty system may be dysfunctional, that does not mean it is unconstitutional.

The appellate proceeding had attracted amicus briefs from prisoners’ rights groups such as the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Innocence Project and the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, among others. See: Jones v. Davis, 806 F.3d 538 (9th Cir. 2015). 

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Related legal cases

People v. Semaneau

Jones v. Chappell

Teague v. Lane

Furman v. Georgia