It’s been called “broken”, “dysfunctional” and a violation of basic rights, and now the state’s death penalty is up for debate in Southern California.
This week, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena heard arguments about the verdict in the case of convicted murderer, Ernest Jones.
Last year, a district court in Orange County overturned Jones’ death sentence. U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney’s ruling said that delays in the state’s death penalty system rendered the punishment “ineffective” and a violation of the 8th Amendment.
The state of California disagrees.
“We do not believe that there is any evidence, certainly on this record that we’re aware of, that this system is arbitrary or random or leads to random results,” Michael Mongan, an attorney for the state, said in the hearing on Monday.
Could the circuit court’s decision put an end to capital punishment in California?
Not likely, says Frank Zimring, a death penalty expert and law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
“The verdict that is being defended in the 9th Circuit is a long shot,” he said. “The most likely outcome will be that a panel of the 9th Circuit will reverse it.” Zimring opposes the death penalty.
He says this current legal battle is “an opportunity to inject into the judicial system a sort of wide angle, IMAX picture of the whole dysfunctional adventure of California with lethal injections and executions.”
Zimring adds that 749 people have been sentenced to death since the state instituted the death penalty in 1978. Since that time, only 13 have been executed, according to data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
In fact, execution is the third leading cause of death for California’s death row inmates behind natural causes and suicide, Zimring said.
Despite those numbers, Attorney General Kamala Harris is fighting to preserve the status quo.
In a statement released last week, she said the lower court’s decision to overturn Jones’ execution, “undermines important protections that our courts provide to defendants.This flawed ruling requires appellate review.”
So what are the potential outcomes of this case?
The court of appeals could wipe away capital punishment in California, but the state may show it is not up to the courts to decide the issue in the first place.
Adam Schiff, a congressman from California’s 28th district, told NBC Bay Area he has a hunch that attorneys might point to delays as proof the state doesn’t want to execute innocent people.
Still, he said the court proceedings could lead to change, one way or another.
“Given the costs of the death penalty, given the difficulties we’ve had with it, and given the difficulties other states have experienced with it, we need a wholesale review of whether this makes sense,” he said.
This court case could very well prove a tipping point on a tired subject here in California.