Death Penalty Delays Reviewed

What was to be a major challenge to the constitutionality of the decade-long delays in carrying out California’s death penalty turned into a procedural quagmire for a federal appeals court.

In arguments before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Monday, the three-judge panel appeared to struggle with whether it had authority under federal law to even review the issue.

The state contends the appeals court has no authority to hear defendant, Ernest D. Jones, constitutional challenge because he failed to exhaust those claims in the state courts first.

Michael Laurence, head of the state’s Habeas Resource Center,  laid out the problem for deathrow inmates clearly.

“There can be no doubt that there has been an extreme malfunction in California’s death penalty process,” he said. “The average time it takes in the state court system is 20 years.  Seventy-six individuals, whose cases have been affirmed on direct appeal, have waited more than 16 years for appointment of habeas counsel,” he said.

“That is 16 years to begin the state habeas process, which will take another eight to 10 years once a lawyer is located,” he told the panel.

In addition, he pointed out his office is the only state office that has a limit on the number of lawyers it can hire – 34.  “Thirty-four lawyers to handle 758 people is impossible,” he said.

He also noted that in 2008, the bipartisan Commission on Fair Administration of Justice, unanimously found that the capital punishment system is “dysfunctional and will collapse on its own weight.”  Since that report California has done nothing to correct it,” Laurence said.

The Appeal

The arose from the death penalty appeal of  Jones, who was sentenced to die for the 1995 rape and stabbing death his girlfriend’s mother.  His convictions were upheld on direct appeal but in a federal habeas challenge, Jones argued that the state’s death penalty system is dysfunctional and arbitrary and thus unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.

In 2014, a federal judge in Los Angeles sided with Jones and found the significant delays violate the constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

The appeals court heard the state’s appeal of that decision Monday.

State Deputy Attorney General Michael Mongan argued the trial judge’s decision was “fundamentally misguided.”

The panel includes Judges Margaret McKeown, Johnnie Rawlinson and Paul Watford.

Case:  Jones v. Cappell, No. 14-56373

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