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Federal court rules California's death penalty unconstitutional

Federal court rules California's death penalty unconstitutional


Judge finds that death penalty delays 'would offend most fundamental constitutional protections'

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A federal judge in Orange County, California today struck down the state's death penalty, arguing that the system is so fractured, it violates the state's constitution.

Filed today by US District Judge Cormac J. Carney in the Central District of California, today's opinion — posted here by KWMU — explains that more than 900 people have been sentenced to death in California since 1978, but only 13 have been executed.

The ruling was not based on the idea that the death penalty itself is unconstitutional, but rather that the delays and uncertainty constitute cruel and unusual punishment. For the hundreds of prisoners on death row, the opinion reads, "the dysfunctional administration of California's death penalty system has resulted, and will continue to result, in an inordinate and unpredictable period of delay preceding their actual execution." These "systemic" delays have made executions "so unlikely that the death sentence" serves "no retributive or deterrent purpose...."

More than 40 percent of death row prisoners have been there longer than 19 years

The numbers in Judge Carney's opinion are staggering. "Of the 748 inmates currently on California's Death Row," the opinion reads, "more than 40 percent ... have been there longer than 19 years."

Long stints on death row are expensive. In its "Financial Facts" research, the Death Penalty Research Center found that California has spent close to $5 billion on death row prisoners since 1978, and that converting those death sentences to "life without parole" sentences would "result in an immediate savings of $170 million per year, with a savings of $5 billion over the next 20 years."

Today's ruling effectively put that change into effect.

Natasha Minsker, a director of the ACLU of Northern California, told the Los Angeles Times that today's ruling is "the first time any judge has ruled systemic delay creates an arbitrary system that serves no legitimate purpose and is therefore unconstitutional." A spokesman for Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris told the Los Angeles Times that "her office was reviewing the decision."

Maryland was the last state to abolish the death penalty last year. As of today, there are 31 states, along with the federal government and the US military, that allow the death penalty. There are more than 3,100 people on death row nationwide.