The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Federal judge says California’s death penalty system is ‘unconstitutional’

The execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Okla., where a high-profile botched lethal injection occurred this year. (AP)

A federal judge in California called the state’s death penalty system “unconstitutional” in an order issued Wednesday, excoriating the system as “arbitrary” and “completely dysfunctional.”

In the sternly-worded order, U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney said the state’s system is so riddled with delays that the death penalty has been stripped “of any deterrent or retributive effect it might once have had.”

“California’s death penalty system is so plagued by inordinate and unpredictable delay that the death sentence is actually carried out against only a trivial few of those sentenced to death,” he wrote.

Carney’s order was related to the case of Ernest Dewayne Jones, who was sentenced to death in 1995 for raping and killing Julia Miller in 1992. The judge vacated Jones’s death sentence in the order, writing that letting California’s system threaten Jones with death nearly two decades after his sentencing “violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.”

California has the largest number of inmates on death row, but it does not carry out nearly as many executions as the states that have fewer people there. The state had 742 people on its death row at the beginning of 2014, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, significantly more than Florida (410 inmates), Texas (278 inmates) and Missouri (48 inmates). But California has not executed anyone this year — the state hasn’t put an inmate to death since 2006 — while Florida and Texas have each put seven inmates to death and Missouri has carried out five executions.

Since 1976, California has executed 13 people. This number is relatively low, trailing 16 other states over that span. Texas, which executes the most inmates annually, has put at least 13 people to death in each of the last four years and has executed 515 people since 1976. (California, one of 32 states in the U.S. that has the death penalty, executes inmates with lethal injection unless an inmate asks for the gas chamber.)

While inmates often work to delay executions through the appeals process, the delays in California’s system are inherent to that state’s actions, not due to the actions of most individual inmates, Carney wrote.

Voters in California rejected an attempt to eliminate the state’s death penalty in 2012. There was a push this year to speed up the execution process and shorten appeals (an initiative supported by three former California governors), but it failed to make it on the ballot, so organizers are planning to make a push for November 2016.

There has been a shift in recent years away from the death penalty, with one-third of the states that have banned capital punishment doing so since 2007. The last state to abolish the death penalty was Maryland last year, though New Hampshire came very, very close earlier this year.

Still, executions are happening less often than they did even two decades ago, a decline that has occurred as American support for capital punishment has also fallen.

A botched lethal injection in Oklahoma earlier this year drew renewed attention to executions. That high-profile episode was followed by seven weeks without any executions in the U.S., after which three states carried out three in less than 24 hours.

For more, here’s a guide to everything you need to know about executions in the U.S.

[Thanks to Chris McDaniel of St. Louis Public Radio for the order.]