US appeals court rejects challenge to California death penalty

California Court Rejects Death Penalty Challenge
California Court Rejects Death Penalty Challenge

A U.S. appeals court on Thursday unanimously rejected a constitutional challenge to the death penalty in California, overturning a lower court ruling that had found the system too arbitrary.

A California prisoner, Ernest Jones, had argued that long delays in the judicial process surrounding the death penalty in California made the punishment arbitrary and unconstitutional. Jones was sentenced to death by a jury in 1995 for the rape and murder of his girlfriend's mother.

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Last summer a U.S. District Judge, Cormac Carney, agreed in his case, overturning Jones' death sentence and citing the oftentimes decades-long judicial review process involved in putting an inmate to death. Carney said it amounted to a violation of the Constitution's prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris appealed, maintaining that the long appeals process represents an important safeguard for people condemned to death.

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The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Thursday ruled in favor of the state, saying Jones' constitutional claim was too novel and must be denied.

"Many agree with Petitioner that California's capital punishment system is dysfunctional and that the delay between sentencing and execution in California is extraordinary," the judges wrote in their decision.

But, the judges said, case law has established that habeas corpus is meant to ensure that state convictions comply with federal law, not provide an ongoing mechanism to reassess judgments in light of new legal doctrine.

"Because Petitioner asks us to apply a novel constitutional rule, we may not assess the substantive validity of his claim," the judges wrote.

California, which has more than 740 prisoners on death row, has put 13 people to death since 1978 but has not executed a condemned inmate since 2006. Several inmates awaiting execution at San Quentin State Prison have been behind bars on death row for more than three decades.

The ruling on Thursday came a week after California published its proposed rules for lethal injection of condemned inmates, moving the state a step closer to resuming executions.

The proposed regulations would instruct prison officials to use a single drug for lethal injections, rather than the three-drug cocktail that was declared unconstitutional by a California court because it may not block pain to the recipient.

(Reporting by Dan Levine and Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Christian Plumb and Frances Kerry)

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