A federal appeals court will consider Monday whether California's death row is an arbitrary and unfair system, with years of unpredictable delays from conviction to execution, which violates the U.S. Constitution's amendment barring cruel and unusual punishment.
The hearing at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena, California, comes as support for the death penalty wanes in the U.S. The Connecticut Supreme Court recently ruled that it served no legitimate purpose, and Nebraska eliminated it this year.
In California, more prisoners have died of natural causes than have perished in the death chamber. More than 900 killers have been sentenced to death since 1978, but only 13 have been executed.
U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney ruled in the case of a Los Angeles rapist and murderer that the state's death penalty was dysfunctional and offered an empty promise seldom leading to executions while jamming up death row.
“Inordinate and unpredictable delay has resulted in a death penalty system in which very few of the hundreds of individuals sentenced to death have been, or even will be, executed,” wrote Carney, a President George W. Bush appointee.
While death penalty opponents cheered the ruling, Attorney General Kamala Harris appealed.
Prosecutors argued in court papers that the state can't be faulted for having a procedure that protects the interest of everyone with a stake in a case. Even if some cases move faster than others, it doesn't create a dysfunctional system resulting in arbitrary executions.
The case involves a particularly heinous crime.
Paroled rapist Ernest DeWayne Jones raped and murdered his girlfriend's mother in 1992.
The body of Julia Miller was bound, gagged and had been stabbed 14 times, including a chest wound that penetrated to her spine. Two kitchen knives were sticking out of her neck and pieces of three other knives were on or around her body.
Jones, 51, led police on a chase the next morning in Miller's station wagon and then shot himself in the chest with a rifle, though he survived.
His DNA connected him to the rape, and he admitted stabbing Miller. He's been in prison for 20 years.
Fair, timely review
Jones said in his appeal that the state didn't provide a fair and timely review of his case, the delay exceeded that in other states and death row's conditions constituted torture.
He also said the uncertainty of his execution inflicts suffering and, if it ever goes forward, it will serve no legitimate purpose for retribution or deterring other criminals.
No executions have been carried out in California since 2006 after another federal judge ordered an overhaul of the state's procedures for lethal injection.
The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is drafting new lethal-injection regulations after Gov. Jerry Brown said the state would switch from a three-drug mixture to a single-drug lethal injection.
No executions can occur until the new rules are adopted and other legal challenges are resolved.