Ninth Circuit Hears Arguments on Constitutionality of California Death Penalty

 On August 31, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit heard argument in Jones v. Davis, an appeal by California of the 2014 U.S. District Court ruling that declared California's death penalty unconstitutional. In 2014, U.S. District Court Judge Cormac Carney held that the decades-long delays caused by California's failure to provide lawyers for nearly 350 of its death-row prisoners made its death penalty system unconstitutionally cruel and unusual. He said that the “random few” whom California eventually executes - to date, just 13 out of more than 900 individuals sentenced to death - “will have languished for so long on death row that their execution will serve no retributive or deterrent purpose and will be arbitrary.” Lawyer Michael Laurence (pictured, left), representing death row inmate Ernest Dewayne Jones, called the state's death penalty system "dysfunctional." He argued that California's death penalty produces the same type of arbitrary outcomes that led the Supreme Court to invalidate death penalty statutes nationwide in 1972 in the landmark case of Furman v. Georgia. Lawyers from the California Attorney General's Office argued that the delays in this case are different from the issues presented to the Court in Furman and that the lengthy appeals process is evidence of careful efforts to protect the constitutional rights of people who have been sentenced to death. The Ninth Circuit must decide whether to address the substance of Jones' claim or sidestep the issue on procedural grounds. If it upholds Judge Carney's ruling, the sentences of more than 700 people on California's death row could be overturned and replaced with sentences of life without parole.

Citing High Cost of Death Penalty Appeals, California Prosecutor Agrees to Reduce Prisoner's Sentence to Life Without Parole

Citing the high cost of death penalty appeals and difficulty obtaining custody of an out-of-state prisoner, the Kern County, California District Attorney's office has agreed to reduce the 1989 death sentence imposed upon Clarence Ray (pictured) to a sentence of life without parole. Ray's lawyers had filed a petition challenging the constitutionality of his California conviction and death sentence. The parties reached agreement that Ray's death sentence would be reversed in exchange for his giving up the remainder of his appeals. Prosecutors said that fighting the petition for a reduced sentence would have cost the District Attorney's office more than $100,000. They also indicated that they faced substantial obstacles in obtaining custody of Ray. Ray had confessed to the California murder while in prison in Michigan, where he is serving a life sentence for a separate crime. California prosecutors said that because Ray first had to serve that sentence, he would not be turned over to California authorities until he died. They said that officials in Michigan - which has not had the death penalty since 1847 - had intimated that Michigan would not release custody of inmates to states in which they face execution. A California Superior Court judge last week approved the deal and resentenced Ray to life without possibility of parole. 

Editorials in Major Death Penalty States Call for Its Abolition

Recent editorials from leading newspapers in three of the largest death row states critique flaws in the death penalty and call for its abolition. The Sacramento Bee quoted federal district court judge Cormac Carney's recent ruling finding California's death penalty unconstitutional because executions are so rare that they "serve no retributive or deterrent purpose." The Bee called the state's capital punishment system "an abject failure" and said, "[t]he death penalty has not worked, and never will." In the wake of the exoneration of Alfred Brown from Texas' death row, the Dallas Morning News said, "Brown’s release underscores the unacceptably high potential for killing innocent people despite clear flaws in the prosecutorial system." That editorial concluded,"The criminal justice system is too riddled with imperfections to merit reliance on a sentence that cannot be revisited or reversed once it’s carried out. Not when life without parole is an alternative." In Pennsylvania, The Harrisburg Patriot-News said, "The state should not be in the business of killing people." It urged Gov. Tom Wolf to go beyond the moratorium he imposed on the death penalty earlier this year and "seek an end to the practice entirely." Citing the rarity of executions in Pennsylvania and the difficulties in obtaining lethal injection drugs, the editorial said, "Justice can be served through imprisoning a murderer for the rest of his or her life. Vengeance against the accused is not justice."

Orange County Prosecutors Banned from Death Penalty Case for Systemic Pattern of Misconduct

California Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals (pictured) disqualified the entire Orange County District Attorney's Office from prosecuting a death penalty case after finding that prosecutors had engaged in a systemic pattern of police and prosecutorial misconduct involving the deliberate, but undisclosed, use of prison informants to obtain incriminating statements from defendants. None of the 250 prosecutors in the office are now permitted to participate in the case. Attorneys for the defendant, Scott Dekraai, say that after he had invoked his right to counsel, he was deliberately placed near a repeat jailhouse informant who had been given instructions to try to elicit a confession from him. Such a practice is unconstitutional because the informant in a cellmate interaction orchestrated by prosecutors or police is in effect an agent of the police, and the interaction is too much like an interrogation. Defense attorneys also discovered that the Orange County Sheriff's Department had maintained a secret record-keeping system for more than 25 years that detailed its systemic surreptitious use of prison informants. That system contained potentially exculpatory information, but officials denied its existence and refused to turn over records to defense counsel, in violation of the law. California Attorney General Kamala Harris has appealed Judge Geothals' ruling, but said her office will investigate the allegations.

California Seeks More Funds as Death Row Runs Out of Room

California's death row -- the largest in the country -- is expanding beyond the capacity of San Quentin State Prison to hold it. In response, Governor Jerry Brown has proposed a $3.2 million expenditure to make about 100 new cells available to incarcerate death row inmates. California has not executed any death-row prisoner since 2006.  Court rulings have barred the state from using its lethal injection protocol and, last July, in the case of Jones v. Chappell, a federal district court declared the State's death penalty statute unconstitutional as a result of systemic delays in providing appellate review of death sentences. In the nine years since its last execution, California's death row has grown from 646 to 751 inmates. The death-row facilities at San Quentin, which can house 715 inmates, currently hold 708. The remaining inmates include 20 women housed in a separate facility and 23 inmates held elsewhere for court hearings, in long-term medical facilities, or in prisons in other states. Under the governor's new proposal, death row prisoners could be held in another housing unit at San Quentin, where cells have recently become available as the state releases low-level offenders under a measure approved by voters in 2014. Gov. Brown asked the legislature to approve the additional outlays to increase security and staff at the prison. State Senator Loni Hancock, head of the budget subcommittee that will consider Brown's proposal this month, said, "California is in a Catch-22 situation. We are required by the Courts to address prison overcrowding and we are required by law to provide certain minimum conditions for housing death penalty inmates. The Legislature can't avoid its responsibilities in these areas, even though the courts are currently considering the constitutionality of the death penalty, and I hope will agree to end it."

Interested Parties Weigh in on Constitutionality of California's Death Penalty

On March 6, several stakeholders in California's death penalty system filed supportive briefs urging the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to uphold a District Court ruling that the state's death penalty is unconstitutional. The 9th Circuit is considering the state's appeal in the case of Ernest Jones, whose death sentence was overturned by Judge Cormac Carney (pictured). In an amicus brief on behalf of Jones, Bethany Webb, whose sister was murdered in 2011, said, "California's death penalty is a charade. My sister’s killer is going to die of old age before an execution will ever be carried out. The death penalty retraumatizes families like mine and forces them to endure a decades-long cycle of waiting, court hearings, and uncertainty. It is cruel to continue propping up a system that encourages victims’ families to wait decades for an execution that may never come." State legislators and legal scholars also filed briefs in the case. Senator Mark Leno, joined by other state legislators, wrote, "The facts are overwhelmingly clear: California’s death penalty system is broken and clearly there’s no political will to try to address the many flaws that plague the system. The death penalty is exorbitantly costly, arbitrarily applied, and serves no legitimate purpose whatsoever in its current condition. The only reasonable solution is to replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole."

FBI Reports Continued Decline in Police Officers Killed

On November 24, the FBI released a report on law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty in 2013. Twenty-seven (27) officers were killed in "felonious acts," a 45% drop compared to 2012, when 49 officers were killed, and a 53% decline since 2004. Most (15) of the 27 officers killed were in the South, with Texas having the highest number of any state (6). Six officers were killed in the West, four in the Midwest, and only two in the Northeast. California had the second highest number, with 5. In 26 out of the 27 incidents, officers were killed by firearms. Forty-nine (49) other officers died as a result of accidents.

Supreme Court to Review Impact of Eliminating Black and Hispanic Jurors in Captial Case

On October 20, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Chappell v. Ayala (No. 13-1428), a death penalty case from California in which all the black and Hispanic potential jurors were struck from the defendant's trial. Hector Ayala was convicted in 1989 of three murders in San Diego. At his trial, Ayala's attorneys argued that the prosecutor was improperly striking jurors on the basis of race. The judge reviewed the prosecutor's explanation for the strikes without defense attorneys present, saying it was necessary to protect the prosecutor's trial strategy, and concluded the strikes were not racially motivated. The California Supreme Court found that any potential constitutional error related to the racial makeup of the jury or the subsequent closed review was harmless, rejecting Ayala's appeal. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit granted Ayala relief and ordered California to retry him. The 9th Circuit held that the constitutional issues could be reviewed without deference to the state court opinion because no ruling based on federal law had been made against Ayala, and that the errors made at trial had an injurious effect on the jury's verdict. The Supreme Court will consider whether more deference was due the state court's decision and whether the 9th Circuit used the correct standard in determining that the trial errors were harmful.