On July 16, 2014, a federal judge struck down California’s death penalty and vacated the death sentence of Ernest Dewayne Jones, stating that the state’s death penalty system is arbitrary and violates the U. S. Constitution’s 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual treatment.
Ernest Dewayne Jones was convicted in 1995 of the 1992 rape and murder of his girlfriend’s mother merely 10 months after his parole from prison on another rape conviction. He was acquitted of burglary and robbery, though the victim’s daughter and a drug dealer testified that Jones bought cocaine with the victim’s pearl necklace, pearl earrings and pearl bracelet shortly after her death. The jury found special circumstances due to the rape and Jones was sentenced to death.
Nineteen years later, in Ernest Dewayne Jones vs. Kevin Chappell, Warden of California State Prison at San Quentin, U.S. District Court Judge Cormac J. Carney ruled that 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” and “[a]llowing 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.”
Noting that courts have generally rejected the argument that extraordinary delay between sentencing and execution violates the 8th Amendment, the court traced California’s death penalty appeals process and delays in obtaining counsel for each step due to underfunding and the poor rate of pay for private attorneys accepting these appeals. The court rejected the usual arguments that the delay is reasonably related to safeguarding the inmate’s constitutional rights and/or that the delay is caused by the inmate; rather, the court found that the delays are caused by the system’s dysfunction and that Jones did not cause the delay.
The court reasoned that a death sentence carries an implicit promise that the State will carry out the death sentence. According to the court, the promise is made to the citizens, the jurors, the victims, their loved ones and “the hundreds of individuals on Death Row.” The court concluded that the system’s inordinate and unpredictable delays result in an empty promise allowing arbitrary factors to determine whether an inmate will be executed. As such, California’s current death penalty system “serves no penological purpose” and is therefore unconstitutional.
Reactions to the ruling range from “It’s about time!” to “How illogical can you be?!” Either way, the ball is in the State’s (basketball) court to appeal this decision.
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