California death penalty challenge rejected by appeals court
A US federal appeals court has reversed a lower court ruling that found California's death penalty was unconstitutional because of excessive delays.
A three-judge panel of the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that the lower court was barred from considering a novel constitutional theory that found delays in carrying out executions amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
US District Judge Cormac Carney ruled last year that California's death penalty was an empty promise with unpredictable delays that led to arbitrary and rare executions.
More than 900 people have been sentenced to death in California, but only 13 have been executed since 1978. The case involves a Los Angeles man sentenced to die for the 1992 rape and murder of his girlfriend's mother.
The appeals court said it would not weigh the validity of the claim by a convicted 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.
"Many agree ... that California's capital punishment system is dysfunctional and that the delay between sentencing and execution in California is extraordinary," Justice Susan Graber wrote but noted the need to "comply with the federal law in existence at the time the conviction became final".
The case involves Ernest DeWayne Jones, who bound, gagged and stabbed Julia Miller 14 times, including a chest wound that penetrated to her spine. His DNA connected him to the rape.
Jones, 51, said in his appeal that the state did not provide a fair and timely review of his case, the delay exceeded that in other states, and death row's conditions constituted torture.
Two groups representing families of crime victims who oppose capital punishment asked the appeals court to uphold the lower court ruling because they said the death penalty makes grieving and healing harder, it wastes money and is unfairly applied.
A pro-death penalty group said the punishment serves the purpose of retribution.
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.