Federal Court Finds California’s Death Penalty Is Unconstitutional


On July 16, a federal district court in California issued an order declaring that state’s death penalty system unconstitutional and vacating the death sentence of Ernest Jones.

The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution forbids the government from arbitrarily inflicting the ultimate punishment of death. Yet in California’s system, the court found, “arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed.”

Since California’s current death penalty system was adopted in 1978, over 900 people have been sentenced to death. Only 13 have been executed. The rest endure an “inordinate and unpredictable period of delay” that averages 25 years and is “inherent to California’s dysfunctional death penalty system, not the result of individual inmates’ delay tactics.”

“[T]he delay is systemic,” the court wrote, “and the State itself is to blame.” By refusing to provide adequate funding and implement other reforms, “[t]he State has allowed such dysfunction to creep into its death penalty system that the few executions it does carry out are arbitrary.”

Noting that federal courts have reversed death sentences in more than half of the California cases they have reviewed, the court emphasized that the post-conviction review process is “vitally important” and cannot be speeded up at the expense of accuracy. Review “serves both the inmate’s interest in not being improperly executed, as well as the State’s interest in ensuring that it does not improperly execute any individual.”

Because of its unique severity and finality, the constitutionality of the death penalty depends on its ability to deter future crimes or serve society’s interest in retribution for past crimes. Executions that are so infrequent and so long delayed serve neither purpose — “the death penalty is about as effective a deterrent to capital crime as the possibility of a lightning strike is to going outside in the rain” — and so have become “antithetical to any civilized notion of just punishment.”

Judge Cormac J. Carney, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, vacated Ernest Jones’s death sentence, which had been imposed in 1995.