California's Death Penalty Ruled Unconstitutional

A federal judge in Southern California ruled Wednesday that the state's death penalty is unconstitutional. U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney wrote that the "dysfunctional administration of California's death penalty system" has led to years-long delays for executions. According to the Los Angeles Times, 900 people have been given the death penalty in California since 1978—only 13 have been executed.

The ruling was made following a petition from Ernest Dewayne Jones, who was sentenced to death two decades ago (the judge vacated his sentence). "Allowing this system to continue to threaten Mr. Jones with the slight possibility of death, almost a generation after he was first sentenced, violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment," Carney wrote.

As the San Francisco Chronicle points out, executions in the state had previously been halted following a ruling from federal courts, owing to problems in the lethal injection process. Further from the Chronicle:

As Carney noted, out of more than 900 convicted murderers sentenced to death since voters passed the current death penalty law in 1978, far more - 94 - have died from illnesses, suicide or other causes than on the executioner's table. An additional 39 have had their sentences reduced by the courts.

For most condemned prisoners, "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," said Carney, a 2003 appointee of President George W. Bush.

Carney also cited in his ruling that more than 40 percent of the inmates waiting on California's Death Row have been for nearly two decades. His ruling can be appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

[Image of Ernest Dewayne Jones via AP]