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California's Death Penalty Is Unconstitutional, Federal Judge Says

A federal judge based in SoCal ruled today that California's death penalty system is unconstitutional.

Does that mean that death sentences are no longer allowed and that criminals on death row will get an upgrade to life? It remains to be seen: The ruling by U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney of the Central District U.S. court in Santa Ana can be appealed to the federal 9th Circuit court.

The judge said that our system is so dysfunctional that a death sentence does not assure a conclusion and really only fosters uncertainty and, worse, arbitrary outcomes:

Carney, a George W. Bush appointee, noted in his decision that more than 900 criminals have been sentenced to death since 1978, when the today's penalty system was enacted:

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.

The judge said that this system has made the death penalty arbitrary, and that this is unconstitutional:

 ... To be executed in such a system, where so many are sentenced to death but only a random few are actually executed, would offend the most fundamental of constitutional protections — that the government shall not be permitted to arbitrarily inflict the ultimate punishment of death.

The nonprofit group Death Penalty Focus says this is the first time a federal court has found California's death penalty to be unconstitutional.

The case involved Ernest Dewayne Jones, who was given his death sentence by an L.A. judge in 1995 and who has been awaiting the final disposition of his case, and of his life, since then. In 1992 he raped and murdered the mother of his then-girlfriend. He was on parole for a previous sex crime.

Former L.A. County District Attorney Gil Garcetti had this to say:

It further proves that the death penalty is broken beyond repair; it is exorbitantly costly, unfair, and serves no legitimate purpose whatsoever. The only solution is to replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Matt Cherry, executive director of Death Penalty Focus:

Justice requires that we end this charade once and for all,” said Matt Cherry, Executive Director of Death Penalty Focus. “It’s time to replace California’s broken death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole. That’s the best way to ensure that convicted killers remain behind bars until they die, without wasting tens of millions of tax dollars every year on needless appeals. That’s justice that works, for everyone.

[Update at 3:45 p.m.]: You can add Amnesty International to the groups that are pleased with this ruling. Amnesty International USA executive director, Steven W. Hawkins:

I’m hopeful that this decision will quicken the gathering momentum toward abolishing this cruel, inhuman and degrading practice in the United States once and for all. More than a third of U.S. states have now abolished capital punishment and we will not rest until the remaining follow suit. The U.S. cannot be a country that truly values human rights as long as it continues to execute prisoners.

Send feedback and tips to the author. Follow Dennis Romero on Twitter at @dennisjromero. Follow LA Weekly News on Twitter at @laweeklynews.