Beginning in the winter of 1994, the United States was fascinated with the “trial of century.”  O.J. Simpson was on trial in California for the murder of his ex-wife and a waiter.  In the the same state, the same county, the same courthouse, at the same time, Ernest Dewayne Jones was just down the hall, also on trial, for the murder of the mother of his girlfriend.  Unlike O.J., Ernest’s trial did not grip a nation in fascination.  Ernest was, again unlike O.J., quietly convicted of rape and murder.  He received the ultimate sentence: death.

 

Ernest became one of the now-748 inmates on death row in California, which houses the largest death row in the United States.  And that number continues to grow.  California has had an unofficial moratorium on executions since 2006, when a federal judge halted all executions after finding flaws in the execution procedure and staff training that created a substantial risk of a painful execution.  Since that ruling, California has been unable to create an execution process that is satisfactory for the courts, a problem which has been compounded by the shortage of execution drugs.

 

An attorney for Ernest successfully argued before US District Judge Cormac Carney of Santa Ana, that the long delays and unlikeliness of execution is unconstitutional.  In California, it can take up to five years before an inmate is appointed and attorney to begin his appeals after receiving a death sentence.  The delays, which Judge Carney attributed to state deficiencies rather than the prisoners abusing the system, “has resulted in the arbitrary selection of a small handful of individuals for executions,” according to Judge Carney.  He further elaborates that “when an individual is condemned to death in California, the sentence carries with it an implicit promise from the state that it will actually be carried out…for too long now, the promise has been an empty one” resulting in “a system in which arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime of the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed.”  Judge Carney concludes that in California, in its current status, the death penalty system “serves no penological purpose…such a system is unconstitutional.”

 

 

So what does this mean for death row inmates in California and other states that have long wait times between sentencing and execution?  Nothing yet.  Judge Carney’s decision only applies to Ernest, not all death row inmates.  However, because of his ruling, other inmates, in California and other states, could file appeals of a similar nature.  The attorney general for California is currently reviewing the judge’s decision.   It is likely that Judge Carney’s decision will be appealed by California to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals before ultimately ending up before the Supreme Court of the United States, which could choose not to take the case.

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