An appeal from California Attorney General Kamala Harris, in a case pertaining to delays in California's death penalty system, went before a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit today in Pasadena. Harris is appealing a ruling by a lower court judge, Republican appointee Cormac Carney, who ruled in 2014 that the death penalty of 20-year death row inmate Ernest Jones be vacated because the length of the delay in executing him amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, as KQED reports.
Jones has been serving his death sentence since being convicted in 1992 of murdering the mother of his girlfriend, and this was just ten months after being paroled on an earlier rape conviction. Carney ruled that keeping Jones in anticipation of his death for 20 years was unconstitutional, and that California's history of delaying executions upwards of 15 years "has resulted in a system that serves no penological purpose."
Death penalty opponents have latched onto the case as a road to abolishing the death penalty in California, which could have ramifications across the country. California currently houses 25 percent of the nation's death row inmates, over 750, most of whom are at San Quentin State Prison.
As the Innocence Project writes in an amicus brief, of the system of delays and re-investigation of cases, "Such delay has an especially pernicious effect on innocent prisoners. Postconviction DNA testing has demonstrated with unprecedented certainty that more innocent people suffer in prison - many awaiting wrongful execution - than most lay citizens and legal scholars have ever imagined. The DNA exonerations have also exposed deeply-rooted, systemic problems with the criminal justice system, including issues with eyewitness testimony, unvalidated or unreliable forensics, informant testimony, and false confessions. Without the ability to investigate these factually intensive claims in a timely manner, potentially exonerative evidence may never be advanced."
And the SF-based Death Penalty Focus submitted its own amicus brief saying, "The State’s exorbitant delays in processing capital cases also inflict needless and protracted suffering upon the families of death row inmates, as their loved one’s impending death impedes their ability to engage with society and lead productive lives during the many years’ wait for the review process to finish."
The LA Times reports from the courtroom today that the three-judge panel were focused in their questioning on a procedural issue of whether or not the state supreme court needed to rule on Jones' case first. "Legal rules require a state inmate to present all his or her claims in state court before a federal judge can review them," as the LA Times notes. This could hint at skepticism among the judges about abolishing the death penalty, or simply at their desire to avoid ruling on the issue at this time.
Voters in California remain closely divided on the issue, with 52 percent of voters defeating Prop 34 in 2012, which would have abolished the death penalty.
And as the New York Times notes, even if the 9th Circuit decides to uphold Carney's earlier ruling, and SCOTUS does too, this does not necessarily mean anything for laws in the rest of the country, since the ruling pretty narrowly focuses on the situation in California and its low pace of executions.