California’s Dysfunctional Death Penalty System Ruled Unconstitutional

Originally published on July 22, 2014, at

US District Judge Cormac Carney ruled California’s death penalty unconstitutional in a controversial decision last week. Judge Carney vacated the death sentence of Ernest Dewayne Jones in a desperate attempt to expose and possibly repair California’s dysfunctional death penalty system.

Judge Carney wrote, “In California, the execution of a death sentence is so infrequent, and the delays preceding it so extraordinary, that the death penalty is deprived of any deterrent or retributive effect it might once have had. Such an outcome is antithetical to any civilized notion of just punishment.”

More than 900 people have received death sentences in California since 1978, but only 13 have been executed by the State. Over 40% of California’s current 748 death row inmates, like Ernest Dewayne Jones, have spent at least 19 years waiting for execution. Clarence Ray Allen, the last inmate executed in California, waited on death row for 26 years.

“Of the 511 individuals sentenced to death between 1978 and 1997, 79 died of natural causes, suicide, or causes other than execution by the State of California,” wrote Carney.

Arguing that arbitrary uncertainty and excessive delays violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, Carney offered solutions to fix these systemic dilemmas. Pointing to a massive backlog in the review of appeals, delays caused by a lengthy appeals process, and budget cuts at the Office of the State Public Defender, Carney seeks to provide death row inmates with fair and timely legal representation. Instead, California’s public defenders are currently underpaid, understaffed, and inundated with numerous appeals.

In 2006, US District Judge Jeremy Fogel found California’s three-drug lethal injection procedure unconstitutional, effectively creating a moratorium on death penalty executions. Judge Fogel argued that extremely painful deaths coupled with inexperienced executioners violated prisoners’ rights against cruel and unusual punishment. California built a new execution chamber and altered the drug protocol, but it has yet to be tested on a death row inmate.

The man who Judge Fogel offered a stay of execution was a convicted killer named Michael Morales. Arrested for the murder of Terri Lynn Winchell in Lodi 34 years ago, Morales found himself hours away from execution when his challenge to lethal injection induced Fogel to prolong his death.

In 1992, Ernest Dewayne Jones raped and murdered his girlfriend’s mother, Julia Miller. After being paroled for a previous rape 10 months earlier, Jones was arrested claiming the victim had confronted him over his mistreatment of her daughter while aiming a rifle at him. Experiencing a flashback to his violent childhood, Jones admitted to losing control and committing reprehensible crimes against his girlfriend’s mother.

Carney believes that waiting roughly 20 years to execute a convicted murderer deprives the victim’s family of a true sense of retribution. By providing death row inmates with improved legal counsel and a more efficient appeals process, families would no longer have to wait nearly a quarter of century for justice to be served.

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