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The Row Over Death Row

By Donna Mallard | May 2, 2015

Law Office Management

May 2, 2015

The Row Over Death Row

The Ninth Circuit will hear the argument that California's death penalty is unconstitutional.

U.S. District Court Judge Cormac J. Carney in Santa Ana made waves in 2014 when he ruled that a death row inmate's sentence was unconstitutional because of the arbitrary way the penalty is administered in California. (Jones v. Chappell, 31 F. Supp. 3d 1050 (C.D. Cal. 2014).)

State figures show there were 753 inmates on death row as of March 9, including 10 awaiting retrial; since California reinstated capital punishment in 1978, 13 people have been executed. Typically, about three decades elapse between a sentence of death and resolution of an inmate's appeals.

The state has argued that Ernest Dewayne Jones, convicted in 1995 of rape and murder, hasn't properly exhausted his appeals. It also argues, among other points, that claims about the penalty's general administration don't apply to Jones specifically, and that he is improperly alleging new facts in his federal habeas corpus case. The state attorney general appealed Carney's ruling to the Ninth Circuit in December, and Jones filed a response in March.

More than 20 amicus curiae submitted briefs. The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation contends that delays don't negate the penalty's retributive purpose: "[T]o frustrate or to diminish an interest is not to extinguish the interest. A murderer who lives out much of his life span before being executed for a crime committed decades earlier has gotten off easier than he should."

But Jones's supporters, including a retired San Quentin correctional officer, argue in their briefs that delays increase the death penalty's cost, limit its deterrent effect, and make it unconstitutionally arbitrary.

Loyola Law School's Alarcon Advocacy Center points out that, when their habeas petition is actually heard, many inmates successfully make the case that they don't belong on death row.

Death Penalty Focus maintains that delays can hamper death row inmates' abilities to pursue their direct appeals and can "irreparably harm the inmates by depriving them of their freedom and the opportunity to rebuild their lives during the decades spent reviewing their convictions."

No date for the oral argument had been set by press time.


Donna Mallard

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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