Why California’s death penalty is back in play

California's death penalty is not 'cruel and unusual punishment' nor is it unconstitutional, ruled a federal appeals court Thursday. 

(AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)
The death chamber of the lethal injection facility at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif. in 2010. California proposed Friday, Nov. 6, 2015, to allow corrections officials to choose one of four types of barbiturates to execute prisoners on death row depending on what’s available, as states deal with a nationwide shortage of execution drugs.

A federal appeals court on Thursday reversed a lower court’s ruling that found California's death penalty was unconstitutional because of excessive delays.

In a unanimous decision, the three-judge panel of the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals found that the long delays prisoners face on death row do not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

The case centered on a novel constitutional theory that claims death row inmates' sentences have been transformed from one of death to one of “grave uncertainty and torture.” The judges wrote in their decision that the theory has “no support” in legal precedent, “nor is it supported by logic.”

US District Judge Cormac Carney put the new legal theory to the test last year when he called California’s system “completely dysfunctional” and ruled that it led to arbitrary executions.

“California’s death penalty system is so plagued by inordinate and unpredictable delay that the death sentence is actually carried out against only a trivial few of those sentenced to death,” Judge Carney wrote in his order.

The appeals court said it would not weigh the validity of the claim by a murderer on death row for two decades because the lower court had to apply federal law at the time of his conviction and not a novel constitutional rule. Nonetheless, the three-judge panel agreed that California's capital punishment system is dysfunctional.

Prosecutors appealed Carney's ruling in the case of Ernest DeWayne Jones, a Los Angeles man sentenced to die for the 1992 rape and murder of his girlfriend's mother.

Mr. Jones said in his appeal that the state didn't provide a fair and timely review of his case and that the conditions on death row constituted torture. His lawyer could appeal Thursday’s ruling to a larger panel of the 9th Circuit, reports the Los Angeles Times.

California has the largest death-row population in the country, but the state has rarely carried out executions in recent years. Of the more than 900 people who have been sentenced to death since 1978, only 13 have been executed.

Yet California has shown signs that it may be getting closer to resuming lethal injections, reports the Washington Post. While the state has not carried out an execution since 2006, the state proposed a new execution protocol last week after a federal judge ordered an overhaul of the state's procedures for lethal injection.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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