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California Death Penalty Ruled Unconstitutional

Håkan Dahlström, flickr

San Quentin State Prison houses California's death row inmates.

Håkan Dahlström, flickr

The California death penalty has been ruled unconstitutional by a judge who found it "dysfunctional" and "arbitrary." 

U.S. Dis­trict Judge Cor­mac J. Car­ney criticized California’s death penalty system while ruling in the case of a man who'd been sentenced to death in 1995. Carney says long and unpredictable delays have created a system of arbitrary punishment. He says that violates the US Constitution.

UC Berkeley Law Professor Elisabeth Semel, who directs the school’s Death Penalty Clinic, says that’s an important distinction.

“If the system is arbitrary, then it doesn’t serve the legitimate purposes of capital punishment, at least as the US Supreme Court has declared them,” she says. “It doesn’t deter and it doesn’t serve the purpose of retribution.”

However, Semel says, people should not misunderstanding the ruling. She says while the decision is significant, right now it only applies to a single case. 

Still, UC Davis Law Professor Gabriel Chin says Carney’s decision was clearly thoughtful and included supporting opinions from other judges. Chin says the death penalty is permissible if it carried out fairly. But he says California’s system lacks critical resources.

“And if they poured lawyers into it and if they poured money into it, they could move the cases along," he says. "But California, it seems like on the one hand they want to have the death penalty in principle, but on the other hand they don’t want to fund it in a way that makes it functional.” 

In his opinion Carney stated the average inmate waits on death row for 25 years. Of the more than 900 California inmates sentenced to death since 1978, only 13 have actually been executed.

The Attorney General's office says it's reviewing the ruling. 

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