A federal judge in California has ruled that the state’s death penalty is unconstitutional.  Judge Cormac Carney vacated the 1995 death sentence of Ernest Jones.

“Allowing this system to continue to threaten Mr. Jones with the slight possibility of death, almost a generation after he was first sentenced, violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. “

Carney called the state’s system “dysfunctional” and the system “…is antithetical to any civilized notion of just punishment.”

Judge Carney said the punishment of death cannot serve the purposes of deterrence or retribution when it is administered arbitrarily, decades after their sentencing: “Inordinate and unpredictable delay has resulted in a death penalty system in which very few of the hundreds of individuals sentenced to death have been, or even will be, executed by the State. It has resulted in a system in which arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed. And it has resulted in a system that serves no penological purpose. Such a system is unconstitutional.”

Since 1978, more than 900 people in California have been sentenced to death.  Of those people, 13 have been executed, 98 have died from other causes, and some have been overturned or reduced.  40% of those awaiting execution in California have been there for almost 20 years.  In 2006, California placed a moratorium on executions.  There are currently 748 people on death row in the state.  The last execution in California was in January of 2006.  Clarence Ray Allen, 76 spent 23 years and 1 month on death row before being executed using lethal injection.  He was convicted of planning a triple murder from prison in 1982.

Michael Laurence, executive director of the Habeas Corpus Resource Center and Jones’ attorney, said he was glad that the judge reaffirmed what the state commission found in 2008.

“There is no rational explanation, much less any moral or societal justification, for which people are ultimately executed,” Laurence said in a written statement, “The execution of Mr. Jones, and the others like him whose meritorious legal claims have gone unheard for decades, serves no valid state interest.”

Matt Cherry, executive director of Death Penalty Focus said, “Justice requires that we end this charade once and for all.  It’s time to replace California’s broken death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole. That’s the best way to ensure that convicted killers remain behind bars until they die, without wasting tens of millions of tax dollars every year on needless appeals.”

Jones’ case went quietly in the background of the sensationalized double murder trial of sports star O.J. Simpson.  Jones was represented by a public defender, convicted, and sentenced to death without any attention paid.

He had been accused of raping and killing his girlfriend’s mother, Julia Miller, a 50-year-old defense industry accountant.

During the trial, Jones’ aunt described him as the product of a broken home.  He grew up in “a living hell”.  His parents fought violently and suffered from alcoholism and drug addiction.  His parents beat him and he developed a marijuana and cocaine addiction of his own.  He testified that he suffered from flashbacks and that the victim confronted him with a rifle about his treatment of her daughter.  He flashed back and lost control.

In 2003, the state Supreme Court upheld the conviction and sentence of Jones.  The case is expected to be appealed by prosecutors.  California Attorney General Kamala Harris’ office is currently reviewing the decision.


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