A federal judge in Orange County has ruled that California’s death penalty is unconstitutional because it violates a person’s right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.
In a 29-page ruling, Santa Ana-based U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney vacated the death sentence of Ernest D. Jones, who was sentenced to death nearly two decades ago. 1
This decision will be viewed as a major legal victory for those aiming to eliminate the death penalty in California. A smaller victory occurred eight years ago when all executions were stopped.
Jones’ Journey to the Death Penalty
In 1995, Jones was convicted of raping and murdering his girlfriend’s mother, Julia Miller. He had already spent time in prison after he was convicted of raping a previous girlfriend’s mother, according to court records. He was sentenced to death.
According to CNN, witnesses at his trial said that Jones had told them he was hearing voices and experiencing flashbacks dating as far back as a year before the incident. Jones said Miller confronted him regarding his girlfriend and pulled a gun on him. This caused Jones, who grew up in a violent home, to experience a flashback, to which he responded by raping and killing her. 2
Jones’ appeal reached the California Supreme Court in 2003, and his conviction on first-degree murder and rape charges was upheld.
Is California’s Death Penalty Unconstitutional?
The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects against cruel and unusual punishment. In his ruling, Carney said California’s death penalty system is so dysfunctional that the uncertainty and delay violated Jones’ Eighth Amendment rights. 3
Carney pointed out that more than 900 convicted criminals in California have been given the death penalty since 1978 but only 13 of those convicts have been executed.
The state’s last execution occurred in January 2006. There have been no executions carried out in California since a 2006 moratorium was put on the death penalty. A 2010 execution of a man who raped and killed a 15-year-old girl was blocked by state and federal courts due to concerns about lethal injections. 4
California currently has 748 inmates on death row, the most of any state. About 40 percent of those inmates have been on death row for more than 19 years. 5
According to Carney, this has resulted in a sentence that is not the same as the death penalty, but should instead be considered “life in prison, with the remote possibility of death,” a sentence that no jury or legislature should be able to impose. 6
Attorney General Kamala D. Harris is reviewing the decision. It is expected to be appealed.
What Do You Think about the Decision?
The ruling should be considered a victory for Jones, any inmate currently on death row, and any person facing the death penalty. However, this is likely not the final court decision regarding this very controversial topic. Wallin & Klarich will keep you posted with any updates that occur in the future.
What do you think about Carney’s ruling? Is California’s death penalty system broken? Should the death penalty be considered cruel and unusual punishment? Should California spend the money necessary to develop a system to execute those that receive the death penalty that is not considered “cruel and unusal?” Please share your thoughts in the comments below.