16 July 2014

California's Death Penalty Held Unconstitutional

California has sentenced 900 people to death since 1978 when it reintroduced the death penalty, but has executed just 13, the last in 2006.  Seven people have died of other causes while on death row for each person who was executed.  The appellate process takes twenty-five years on average (twice the national average), in addition to the often lengthy process of convicting someone of the death penalty in the first place.

A federal judge held today that the entire process is unconstitutional because the ultimate reality that chooses which unlucky few people will be executed and who will not is so arbitrary and capricious that it violates the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

If the ruling sticks is will remove 742 people from death row, more than any court ruling in the history of the United States other than the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972 that temporarily ended the death penalty in the United States.  Nationwide there are 3,070 inmates in the United States who have been sentenced to death and have not had those sentences reversed on appeal.  Almost a quarter of them could potentially have death sentences converted into life in prison by this ruling.

An appeal, if the State of California chooses to pursue it, would be to the United States Court of Appeals for 9th Circuit (arguably the most liberal federal appeals court in the country on death penalty issues), and then to the U.S. Supreme Court.  The state attorney general could, however, simply decline to appeal the case and end the death penalty in California, as was done in the case of Proposition 8, a plausible result giving the officials who hold those offices.  Kamala Harris, the attorney general, is a leading opponent of capital punishment and Governor Brown isn't a strong supporter of it either.  A 2012 referendum to abolish the death penalty in California narrowly failed with 48% of voters supporting the measure.


Dave Barnes said...

To me, the most interesting takeaway from this is the COST of executions.
$308M/execution in California.

andrew said...

Indeed. Honestly, I'm not opposed in principle to capital punishment, and I could care less about the manner in which it is imposed, but from a strictly utilitarian perspective it makes no sense. A core original idea of executions was economically motivated - it was cheaper to execute someone promptly than to pay government officials to house large numbers of people for life, or at least, very long periods of time. Murderers were so useless to society that it wasn't worth spending the money to provide them free room and board for years to keep them out of circulation in society - unless, of course, they were hereditary nobles. A system that spends more money on unredeemable people, rather than less, has skewed priorities.

Of course, there are also problems that the process itself. Particularly (1) plea bargains of non-guilty parties induced by exposure to a potential death penalty, (2) incompetent and underfunded defense counsel assigned to these cases (some of the cases upheld in Texas and other Southern states are particularly egregious in this regard), (3) prosecutorial ethical violations in not disclosing exculpatory evidence, (4) "death qualified juries" that have a built in prosecution bias relative to other criminal juries, and (5) inadequate processes for assessing exonerating evidence discovered after conviction, mean that the accuracy of guilty verdicts is lower rather than higher in death penalty cases.

andrew said...

It was announced today that California's attorney general, despite being a personal opponent of the death penalty, will appeal the ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. News reports have claimed that an appellate ruling would bind the entire circuit, which is technically true but deceptive, as the factual basis for the ruling is very specific to California.