A recent decision from the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California found California’s implementation of the death penalty to be unconstitutional. In that case, Judge Cormac J. Carney vacated the death sentence of Ernest Dewayne Jones, who was convicted of first degree murder and rape.
Were this a routine death penalty appeal where the death sentence was vacated because of mental retardation, age of minority, or actual innocence, it probably would not have merited additional attention. What makes Jones v. Wong a remarkable Man Bites Dog case is the counter-intuitive reasoning offered by the judge: the death penalty process in California is unconstitutional because the state is taking too long to execute prisoners on death row.
Specifically, the judge found that the administration of the death penalty in California violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The judge asserted that the death penalty, when administered, would be arbitrary because only a select few who have been sentenced to death will actually be executed due to the long appeal process. Additionally, the death penalty serves no penological purpose because the lengthy delay in imposing the sentence limits the retributive and deterrence effects.
The judge further accused California of running a dysfunctional death penalty system on account of the “inordinate and unpredictable period of delay” preceding executions with the time between sentencing and execution taking 25 years, which is twice the national average. The judge stated that the current death penalty process which leads to “life in prison, with a remote possibility of death” is not one that “a rational jury or legislature could ever impose,” and attributed the delay to inadequate funding and the automatic appeal of death sentences to the state supreme court.
While some death penalty opponents cheered this decision, their initial enthusiasm may be misplaced. This judge is not an opponent of the death penalty along the lines of Justice Blackmun who famously pledged to no longer tinker with the machinery of death. Instead, the judge appears to be forcing the California legislature to address the death penalty issue: either fix the system or surrender the pretense in its entirety.
Death penalty opponents are counting on the state to finally abandon the death penalty an unaffordable exercise of retribution. That is certainly one possibility. However, the legislature could also adopt the recommendations of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice and reform the administration of the death penalty in California. If that happens, petitioner may rue the appeal that forced the state into action. Maybe a life in prison with a remote chance of execution beats a certain execution free of unconstitutional delays.