Federal Judge Rules Death Penalty Unconstitutional in California

In ruling, U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney calls system "dysfunctional" and "arbitrary"

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    A federal judge in Orange County on Wednesday declared the death penalty "unconstitutional" in the state of California – the first ruling of its kind in the United States. Mark Matthews reports. (Published Wednesday, Jul 16, 2014)

    A federal judge on Wednesday declared the death penalty "unconstitutional" in the state of California – the first ruling of its kind in the United States.

    U.S. District Court Judge Cormac Carney in Orange County called the system "dysfunctional" and "arbitrary" in his 29-page ruling.

    "No rational person can question that the execution of an individual carries with it the solemn obligation of the government to ensure that the punishment is not arbitrarily imposed and that it furthers the interests of society,” he wrote.

    California has not executed anyone since 2006, when a U.S. district court judge decided to block the execution of a convicted murderer because of concerns over the administration of lethal injection. Carney’s ruling can be appealed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

    Spokespersons for both California Attorney General Kamala Harris and the California Department of Corrections said they were "reviewing the ruling."

    ACLU of Northern California Associate Director Natasha Minsker, who is not directly involved in the case but following it closely, tweeted as she read the ruling, citing the judge who said the current system is plagued by delay and violates the Eighth Amendment.

    It is not immediately clear why Carney's rule was released Wednesday.

    In her opinion, Minsker said the judge made this unprecedented ruling at this juncture in time because he felt that "enough was enough."

    Death penalty proponent Marc Klass, whose 12-year-old daughter, Polly, was kidnapped and killed in 1993, called Carney's decision "another slap in the face of California's crime victims." His daughter's killer, Richard Allen Davis, was sentenced to death.

    Klass said Carney's ruling flies in the face of what the people of California want and that eventually, the death penalty will be back on the ballot.

    Carney was appointed to the federal bench in 2003 by Republican President George W. Bush, who supported capital punishment and who earned the nickname of "the Death Penalty Governor" when he was chief executive of the state of Texas.

    Carney's ruling stems from the 1995 case of Ernest Dewayne Jones, who sued Kevin Chappell, the warden of the California State Prison at San Quentin. Jones was sentenced to death for the 1992 rape and killing of Julia Miller, 10 months after he was paroled for a previous rape. Jones remains on death row, still awaiting his execution nearly 20 years after his sentence.

    "Mr. Jones is not alone," Carney wrote.

    Of the 900 people sentenced to death for their crimes since 1978, when the current death penalty system was adopted by California voters, only 13 have been executed so far.

    Carney wrote that it will continue to result in an unpredictable period of delay preceding their actual execution.

    For the random few for whom execution becomes a reality, Carney said they will go on to languish for so long on death row that "their execution will serve no retributive or deterrent purpose and will be arbitrary."

    Carney wrote that when an individual is condemned to death in California, the sentence carries with it the promise that it will actually be carried out. That promise is made to citizens, jurors, victims and their loved ones, and to the hundreds of individuals on death row, he wrote.

    However, Carney argues, “for too long now, the promise has been an empty one.”

    The delays have resulted in a system in which arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual's execution will be carried out, Carney wrote.

    In his closing paragraph, Carney writes that the current system serves no “penological purpose.” 

    From 1893 to 2006, there have been a total of 513 executions in California, including 307 by hanging, 196 by lethal gas and 10 by lethal injection.

    At the time a federal judge put California's death penalty on hold in 2006, lethal injections were carried out in San Quentin's old gas chamber, which the judge found too cramped, too dark and too old for prison staff to properly administer execution drugs.

    Since then, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has built a new execution chamber on the grounds of San Quentin in Northern California and made a number of changes to its procedures to address the judge's concerns, the Associated Press reported.

    A new federal judge has taken over the case and has not ruled on whether those changes are enough to restart executions.

    Additionally, the corrections department is drafting a new set of regulations for administering lethal injections. No executions can take place until the new regulations are formally adopted.

    NBC Bay Area's Mark Matthews and the Associated Press contributed reporting.