In an order last year, U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney had said California’s system was “completely dysfunctional.”
“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,” Carney wrote in his July 2014 order.
That order was reversed Thursday by a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which said that while many people agreed with Jones’s argument “that the delay between sentencing and execution in California is extraordinary,” the district court was not allowed to consider “novel constitutional theories” in reviewing cases like this.
The opinion from Judge Susan P. Graber also added that because it was asked to consider this type of theory, the court could “not assess the substantive validity of [Jones’s] claim.”
California has more death-row inmates than any other state, with more than 740 inmates currently sentenced to death. That is more than the combined death-row populations of the next two states on the list (Florida and Texas, both of which regularly put inmates to death). Inmates on California’s death row have been there for an average of a little more than 16 years, a little more than a year longer than the national average, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
And while California has not executed an inmate since 2006, the state proposed a new execution protocol last week that would involve using a single drug, replacing the three-drug combination that had been struck down by a judge.
Carney’s order, and the appeals court’s ruling Thursday, involve the case of Ernest Dewayne Jones, who was sentenced to death in 1995 for raping and killing Julia Miller in 1992. Carney had 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 authorities had argued in favor of overturning Carney’s ruling, which the state called “fundamentally misguided” in one filing submitted by Kamala D. Harris, the state’s attorney general, and Edward DuMont, its solicitor general, among others. The state had argued that there was “no legal basis” for the district court to declare a system they described as thorough, careful and necessary.
In a concurring judgment Thursday, Judge Paul J. Watford said that Carney’s order should have been reversed because Jones has not exhausted his appeals through the state courts.
The case is Jones v. Davis.