Federal Judge Rules CA Death Penalty Unconstitutional

A federal judge in California has ruled California's death penalty system is unconstitutional. He says a death sentence in California is nothing but a penalty of "life with the remote possibility of death." The opinion is here. Since the penalty is so rarely carried out (no one has been executed since 2006), "the death penalty is about as effective a deterrent to capital crime as ther /> possibility of a lightning strike is to going outside in the rain."

This is a problem that has festered in California for years. A major problem, as the judge notes in yesterday's opinion, is California's refusal to adequately fund lawyers. While many media articles briefly mention this, it is a significant part of the judge's decision. [More...]

On the record before it, the Court finds that much of the delay in California’s postconviction review process is created by the State itself, not by inmates’ own interminable efforts to delay. Most Death Row inmates wait between three and five years for counsel to be appointed for their direct appeal. After the issues are briefed on direct appeal, another two to three years are spent waiting for oral argument to be scheduled before the California Supreme Court. On state habeas review, far from meeting the ideal goal of appointing state habeas counsel shortly after the death verdict, at least eight to ten years elapse between the death verdict and appointment of habeas counsel. When that counsel is appointed by the State, investigation of potential claims is hampered by underfunding, which in turn slows down the federal habeas review process.

California has executed one person since 2006. Although more than 900 have been sentenced to death since 1978, only 13 have been executed. Due to the dysfunctional system, that's unlikely to change. As the judge writes:

In fact, just to carry out the sentences of the 748 inmates currently on Death Row, the State would have to conduct more than one execution a week for the next 14 years. Such an outcome is obviously impossible....

California can't have it both ways. If it insists on having a death penalty, it has to provide lawyers for the condemned. Because it doesn't, inmates languish on death row for up to five years just waiting to get a lawyer appointed for their first appeal. There are plenty of lawyers willing and competent to take the cases. But California won't budget for them.

[T]he Commission found the State’s underfunding of its death penalty system to be a key source of the problem. Id. For example, the Commission noted that despite the high volume of applicants willing to represent Death Row inmates from the security of an agency setting, the Office of the State Public Defender’s budget has been cut and its staff reduced. Id. (recommending that “[t]he most direct and efficient way to reduce the backlog of death row inmates awaiting appointment of appellate counsel would be to again expand the Office of the State Public Defender”). Similarly, as to appointments of private counsel, the Commission found that the low rate at which private appointed counsel are paid by the State is “certainly a significant factor in the decline of the pool of attorneys available to handle death penalty appeals.”

While this opinion doesn't address the abysmal conditions on death row, past judicial rulings have. In 2006, another federal judge put executions on hold due to the antiquated lethal injection chamber which did not ensure a humane death. California then pumped $700,000 into a new one.

The conditions of confinement are inhumane, according to the prison guards.

The death row offenders live in single person, 60-square-foot cells, with each cell having a window. Death row offenders receive no programming and are not allowed to work. Death row prisoners receive meals through bean slots, gates in the cell doors. Whenever an offender is taken from his cell, such as when the offender goes to take a shower, the offender is strip searched.

The conditions make it dangerous for the guards.

[T]he inmates are driven crazy by conditions and more prone to attack staff. Mr Lowry said his officers faced danger every day from inmates with “nothing to lose” and it was increasingly common for inmates to throw “bodily fluids” at guards or try to slash them with razor blades. He said plots to riot or escape were “definitely of concern”.

In 2011, a state court judge wrote in an opinion invalidating death penalty procedures that each execution costs the state between $70,000 and $200,000 in overtime for staff, crowd control, training, security and other expenses associated with carrying out lethal injections. And that's just for the execution itself. The total process is far more expensive. From 2006:

[T]he cost of housing death-sentenced inmates is three times that of the general population. A capital trial costs at least three times as much as a non-capital murder trial. It takes tens of millions of dollars annually to pay for courts, prosecutors and defense counsel.

If California insists on a death penalty, it needs to adequately fund and appoint defense counsel and safely and humanely house the inmates. If it's not willing to do that, or to pay the excessive costs associated with death prosecutions, it needs to repeal the death penalty. A punishment that is arbitrarily and discriminatorily applied, fraught with potential for killing an innocent person and does not serve to deter others, makes no sense.

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  • Display: Sort:
    Could this be a path (none / 0) (#1)
    by CaptHowdy on Thu Jul 17, 2014 at 04:48:13 PM EST
    In other states.

    Quantum leaps (none / 0) (#2)
    by sj on Fri Jul 18, 2014 at 11:58:00 AM EST
    in consciousness raising that I never expected to see in my lifetime: Common sense around marijuana, same sex marriage and -- hopefully coming soon -- the death penalty.

    May the trend continue.


    So LWP's will become these? (none / 0) (#3)
    by thomas rogan on Fri Jul 18, 2014 at 08:29:12 PM EST
    "[T]he inmates are driven crazy by conditions and more prone to attack staff. Mr Lowry said his officers faced danger every day from inmates with "nothing to lose" and it was increasingly common for inmates to throw "bodily fluids" at guards or try to slash them with razor blades. He said plots to riot or escape were "definitely of concern". "

    Of course, if California eliminates even the theoretical possibility of being sentenced to death row then all the live without parole prisoners in the general population will turn into inmates with "nothing to lose".  Think about it.