Judge rules against death penalty in California

A federal judge ruled July 16 that California’s death penalty is unconstitutional because the system is so dysfunctional that it is arbitrary and unfair.

The ruling marks the first time a federal court has found California’s death penalty unconstitutional. This decision also comes as “the death penalty is losing favor with the general public and elected officials,” said a statement from Death Penalty Focus, a California-based organization committed to the abolition of the death penalty. 

Defendant Ernest Dewayne Jones, who has been on death row since 19995, argued that because inmates sentenced to death in California sit on death row for decades and are more likely to die of old age than execution, the California death penalty violates the Constitution.  

U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney, an appointee of President George W. Bush, agreed. “To be executed in such a system, where so many are sentenced to death but only a random few are actually executed, would offend the most fundamental of constitutional protections — that the government shall not be permitted to arbitrarily inflict the ultimate punishment of death,” he said.

Matt Cherry, executive director of Death Penalty Focus, called for ending “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,” he said. “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. That’s justice that works, for everyone.”

Gil Garcetti, former Los Angeles County District Attorney, called Judge Carney’s ruling “truly historic. It further proves that the death penalty is broken beyond repair; it is exorbitantly costly, unfair, and serves no legitimate purpose whatsoever. The only solution is to replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole.”

In 2008, the bi-partisan California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice concluded that California’s death penalty system is dysfunctional and issued a series of comprehensive policy recommendations in order to address the dysfunction.  

 “We provided recommendations to improve the system, including providing funds to hire more attorneys and judges to move cases through the appeals process more quickly,” said John Van de Kamp, former Attorney General of California and chair of the Commission. “The facts are overwhelming and clear: California’s death penalty system is dysfunctional.”

In 2012, 48 percent of California voters voted yes on Prop. 34, which would have replaced the death penalty with life in prison without parole, and would have required inmates to work in prison and pay restitution to victims’ families. The vote on Prop. 34 was closer than the margin on the historic Prop. 8 initiative in 2008, which banned same sex marriages.

The California Catholic Conference supported Prop. 34 and expressed disappointment at its defeat.

“The pain and anguish of all victims of crimes remains of significant concern to the Church and to all good people of California,” said Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Gerald Wilkerson, then CCC president, in a statement after the 2012 election. “The California bishops continue to pray for true healing for these victims.

“The penalty of death is not necessary to protect ourselves, punish the offenders or bring legal finality for victims,” he said. “The alternate — the sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole — would have respected the dignity of each human life, no matter how flawed.”


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As we prepare for Election Day next week, the California Catholic Conference has offered reflections and analysis on the important propositions on the ballot this year.

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