Appeals Court Overturns Challenge to California Death Penalty on Procedural Grounds

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit has overturned a California federal district court decision that had declared California's death penalty unconstitutional, saying that the issue presented "a novel constitutional rule" that was beyond the power of the federal courts to address in a habeas corpus proceeding. The appeals court did not address the constitutionality of California's death penalty, saying that because of technical procedural rules "we may not assess the substantive validity of [this] claim." U.S. District Court Judge Cormac Carney had ruled in 2014 in the case of Ernest D. Jones that the lengthy delays and arbitrariness in California's death penalty system rendered it unconstitutionally cruel and unusual. Judge Susan P. Graber (pictured), who wrote the 9th Circuit's decision, said, "Many agree with petitioner that California’s capital punishment system is dysfunctional and that the delay between sentencing and execution in California is extraordinary." However, she said "the purpose of federal habeas corpus is to ensure that state convictions comply with the federal law in existence at the time the conviction became final, and not to provide a mechanism for the continuing re-examination of final judgments based upon later emerging legal doctrine." California has the largest death row in the nation, but has carried out only 13 executions since 1978, and none since 2006. Jones has been on California's death row since 1995. The appeals court decision sends the case back to the district court to address other challenges to the constitutionality of Jones' conviction and death sentence that Judge Carney did not decide when he declared California's death penalty unconstitutional. 

(D. Levine and E. Johnson, "U.S. appeals court rejects challenge to California death penalty," Reuters, November 12, 2015; Almasy, "California's death penalty process upheld by federal appeals court," CNN, November 12, 2015; M. Dolan and J. Serna, "Federal appeals court upholds California's death penalty," Los Angeles Times, November 12, 2015.) See Arbitrariness.