California Judge Rules Death Penalty Unconstitutional, And Yes, It's A Big Deal

As some states move towards more archaic means of executing people (cough, Wyoming, cough), one state has now done away with it entirely: on Wednesday, a federal judge in California ruled the death penalty unconstitutional, finding that the system violates the Constitution's 8th Amendment. Though it's possible that the ruling will be appealed, for now the move is pretty historic — it's the first time that a federal judge had found that the state’s current system of capital punishment violates the constitution.

Much of U.S. District Court Judge Cormac J. Carney's decision was based on the fact that the constant and unpredictable delays in the execution process have created a system that's both arbitrary and unfair. Less than 2 percent of the 900 inmates who've been sentenced to death since 1978 have actually been executed, the Huffington Post reports. Nearly half of the 750 convicts who were given the death penalty have been waiting 19 years. In fact, since 1976, only 13 inmates have been executed in California, according the MSNBC — but many more are just been waiting, hopelessly, for the grim day to come.

Wrote Carney in Wednesday's ruling:

For most [inmates], systemic delay has made their execution so unlikely that the death sentence carefully and deliberately imposed by the jury has been quietly transformed into one no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: life in prison, with the remote possibility of death. As for the random few for whom execution does become a reality, they will have languished for so long on Death Row that their execution will serve no retributive or deterrent purpose and will be arbitrary.

Carney was ruling on a petition made by an inmate, Ernest Dewayne Jones, who was put on death row nearly twenty years ago for the rape and murder of his girlfriend's mother. According to the Los Angeles Times, the judge's ruling means that Jones’ death sentence has now been effectively overturned.

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The judge's decision can still be taken to U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals by the governor or state attorney general. Regardless, it's sure to add fodder to the hot-button topic of capital punishment, especially as the debate continues to grow regarding the legality (and safety) of lethal injection. This last year alone has seen the botched — and highly publicized — executions of Clayton Lockett and Dennis McGuire, both slow and extremely agonizing. Many states are now suggesting a return to more, er, historical methods of execution; methods like the firing squad, and the electric chair.

In spite of this, executions and death sentences are generally on the decline — in fact, only two percent of counties in the U.S. have been responsible for over fifty percent of the country's executions since 1976.