|New lethal injection facility at San Quentin State Prison, CA|
California on Monday asked a federal appeals panel to overturn a 2014 court ruling that — unless it is reversed — could bring a reprieve to the more than 740 inmates on death row in the state.
The ruling, by a federal district judge, held that judicial reviews of death sentences were so prolonged — and executions so rare and seemingly random — that prisoners were subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. If that ruling is allowed to stand, it could have repercussions for capital punishment across the country.
At Monday’s hearing, a lawyer from the state attorney general’s office argued that the 2014 decision violated legal procedures and mislabeled as a sign of dysfunction what were actually the state’s careful efforts to protect the rights of those sentenced to death, such as appointing well-qualified defense lawyers.
“We do not believe that there is any evidence that the system is arbitrary or random,” said Michael J. Mongan, a deputy solicitor general.
But a lawyer for a condemned inmate responded that the contested ruling had rested on sound legal ground and that California’s postconviction review process, which commonly lasts two decades or more, had become agonizingly slow and arbitrary because the state did not provide enough funds for defense lawyers.
The disputed ruling was considered startling when it was issued in July 2014. In it, Judge Cormac J. Carney of Federal District Court in Santa Ana said the way death sentences were reviewed and carried out was arbitrary. Of more than 900 people sentenced to death in the state since 1978, Judge Carney noted, only 13 had been executed.
The “random few” who are put to death, he said, “will have languished for so long on death row that their execution will serve no retributive or deterrent purpose and will be arbitrary.”
Defending Judge Carney’s decision, a lawyer for Mr. Jones on Monday cited a major Supreme Court decision in 1972, Furman v. Georgia, which brought death sentences to a temporary halt across the country because the justices were concerned that such sentences were being given out arbitrarily.
Source: The New York Times, Erik Eckholm, August 31, 2015
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