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Editorial: Judge chastises California perpetuating dysfunctional death penalty system

Death penalty opponents might be heartened by a federal judge’s decision declaring California’s capital punishment unconstitutional.

But the decision by U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney last week is less a victory for abolitionists than it is a condemnation of California officials’ mishandling of capital punishment.

Carney ruled that California is violating the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, emphasis on the unusual.

In the 29-page ruling, Carney pointed out no fewer than six times that more than 900 killers have been sentenced to death in California since 1978, and only 13 have been executed. More than 900 death sentences, and 13 executions, he repeated.

“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.

And he wrote: “As for the random few for whom execution does become a reality, they will have languished for so long on Death Row that their execution will serve no retributive or deterrent purpose and will be arbitrary.”

The ruling involved the case of Ernest Dewayne Jones, who was convicted in 1995 in Los Angeles for the 1992 rape and stabbing death of Julia Miller, the mother of his live-in girlfriend. He had been out of prison for 10 months, having served a prison term for raping the mother of an earlier girlfriend in 1985.

The California Supreme Court affirmed his death sentence in 2003. Eleven years later, lawyers for Jones and the state are arguing his habeas corpus appeal in the federal courts.

Carney didn’t bother to recite the horrible facts of Jones’ crime. Rather, he dwelled on the delays for Jones and the other 740-plus condemned inmates in California, and invited the state to appeal. California Attorney General Kamala Harris likely will appeal the matter to the U.S 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, a process that, no doubt, will take years.

Carney, appointed to the federal bench in 2003 by President George W. Bush, is expressing what any clear-eyed observer sees, that California’s death penalty is dysfunctional.

He suggests that if California policymakers wanted to speed executions, they could, for example, by spending more to hire more lawyers for death row inmates. They don’t.

In 2006, a federal judge in San Jose declared that California’s method of execution – using untrained technicians to carry out lethal injection – could inflict undue pain and was, therefore, cruel.

Eight years later, California correctional authorities have not come up with an acceptable way of putting an inmate to death, essentially slow-walking the process for expediting the long walk.

It’s not surprising. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reports to Gov. Jerry Brown, a moral opponent of the death penalty.

San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos, a capital punishment proponent, said Carney’s ruling, while not good for his side, “brings the issue to light.”

“We have to fix the system,” Ramos said Monday, pledging to raise money to place an initiative on the 2016 ballot that would implement steps cited by Carney that speed the death penalty.

At this point, however, California could not empty death row unless it carried out an execution a week for 14 years. No political leader would want that as a legacy.

There always will be terrible crimes. But for an array of reasons, not the least of which is public ambivalence, California has failed to carry out death sentences. Policymakers and the citizenry ought to acknowledge that the death penalty is broken beyond repair.