|California's brand new death chamber|
In a setback for opponents of capital punishment, a federal appeals panel in California on Thursday overturned a 2014 ruling that could have voided the death sentences of hundreds of prisoners in the state.
Last year, in a decision seen by death penalty foes as pathbreaking, a federal district judge held that California’s multistaged system for reviewing death sentences was so afflicted with delays and arbitrariness that it violated the Eighth Amendment ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Had it survived the legal challenge, that finding would have called into question the death sentences of hundreds of prisoners on death row in California and given energy to similar arguments in other states.
But on Thursday, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the 2014 decision was improper on technical grounds and overturned it. Citing Supreme Court precedent, the panel said that in a habeas corpus petition, as was filed on behalf of a condemned prisoner in this case, the federal courts may not retroactively apply “new rules of constitutional criminal procedure” to overrule a state criminal court’s decision.
Many legal experts said the ruling was expected because of the strong procedural challenges that California prosecutors had raised, which included an argument that the inmate had failed, as required, to exhaust all his state court options.
But through further state appeals of this case or others like it, some said, the underlying argument about systemic dysfunction could remain a potent one, eventually reaching the Supreme Court in an era of growing questions about capital punishment.
The argument that implementation of death sentences has become unacceptably delayed and arbitrary is particularly strong in the case of California, and Thursday’s ruling, which will probably be appealed, is not going to result in executions anytime soon.
Of more than 900 people condemned to die in California since 1978, when the death penalty was reinstated, only 13 have been executed — a “random few,” said Judge Cormac J. Carney, in Fresno, in the 2014 opinion overturned Thursday.
Some inmates died on death row, while others had their sentences altered. Currently, more than 740 prisoners in the state await execution.
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Source: The New york Times, Erik Eckholm, November 12, 2015
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