A panel of three judges appointed to the bench of the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals by Democrats has reversed a July 2014 decision by a US District Judge that ruled the death penalty cruel and unusual and therefore in violation of the Eighth Amendment and the Constitution. The Chronicle has the story from the Associated Press on the decision, and while KQED quotes UC Hastings law professor Rory Little as saying this particular appeal "is far from finished," the case has now lost the mantle of hope with which some death penalty critics had dressed it, when it was heard in late August of this year. No, it will not bring crashing down capital punishment in California, but, Little adds, "the California Supreme Court will have to deal with this theory of arbitrariness and over long delays," at some point all the same.
The case in question concerns Ernest Jones, who was convicted in 1992 of raping and murdering his girlfriend's mother. The crime was committed less than a year after Jones was let out on parole, and his prior conviction was also for rape. The circumstances of his criminal act aside, the District Judge agreed with Jones' lawyer that being left to linger on death row in such a way as the plaintiff was in violation of the constitution.
“For the random few for whom execution does become a reality,” the Judge wrote, “they will have languished for so long on Death Row that their execution will serve no retributive or deterrent purpose and will be arbitrary.” Since the limbo state could last 30 or 40 years, and as those actually executed might be seen as random, that judge quoted a 1972 Supreme Court opinion that called being put to death "as unusual as being struck by lightning." The Eighth Amendment, to clarify the reasons for this argument, speaks to punitive measures that are both cruel and unusual, not just either/or.
However, today the Ninth Circuit came out with its ruling that the judge's previous finding is precluded by US Supreme Court precedents limiting the scope of death penalty appeals. "The panel essentially took a pass on examining the substance of Jones’ claim," as KQED frames it.
"Many agree... that California's capital punishment system is dysfunctional and that the delay between sentencing and execution in California is extraordinary," wrote NInth Circuit Justice Susan Graber in her decision. "But 'the purpose of federal (review) is to ensure that state convictions comply with the federal law in existence at the time the conviction became final, and not to provide a mechanism for the continuing re-examination of final judgments based upon later emerging legal doctrine."
The New York Times wrote in August, concurring with professor Little that regardless of how the decision came down, it "raises issues about the administration of capital punishment that are likely to reach the Supreme Court over time."
Death penalty advocates are currently seeking signatures to put a reform measure on the state ballot in California that would grant speedier trials and appeals to prevent further challenges of this nature. Meanwhile, opponents of capital punishment are gaining ground on a measure of their own to ban the death penalty in the state.
Previously: 9th Circuit Hears Arguments In Constitutionality Of Death Penalty In California