Capitol Alert

Federal appeals court upholds death penalty in California

This Sept. 21, 2010, file photo shows the death chamber of the new lethal injection facility at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif.
This Sept. 21, 2010, file photo shows the death chamber of the new lethal injection facility at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif. AP

A federal appeals court on Thursday reversed a federal judge’s ruling that California’s death penalty is unconstitutional because of excessive delays, saying federal courts should not consider “novel constitutional theories” when reviewing such cases.

In its decision, a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a condemned prisoner’s argument that he and other death row prisoners in California, owing to delays, had unusually cruel sentences: “life in prison, with the remote possibility of death.”

The court found that argument was not “supported by logic.” It also said it was influenced by a recent California Supreme Court decision that found no evidence that delays implementing the death penalty rendered the punishment “impermissably arbitrary.”

U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney ruled last year that the state’s administration of the death penalty is so dysfunctional that it violates the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

“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 decision, Carney had vacated the death sentence of Ernest Dewayne Jones, who was convicted in Los Angeles in 1995 of raping and murdering the mother of his girlfriend.

In its reversal of the lower court’s decision, the 9th Circuit ruling conceded that “many agree” that California’s capital punishment system “is dysfunctional and that the delay between sentencing and execution in California is extraordinary.”

But the court said the purpose of reviewing death penalty cases is to ensure state convictions comply with federal law, “not to provide a mechanism for the continuing re-examination of final judgments based upon later emerging legal doctrine.”

The ruling comes less than a week after California prison officials proposed a new lethal injection method designed to restart executions in the state after nearly a decade without one. The new method would require the use of only one drug to execute inmates.

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders

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