A federal judge ruled California's death penalty unconstitutional Wednesday, writing that lengthy and unpredictable delays have resulted in an arbitrary and unfair capital punishment system.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney represents a legal victory for those who want to abolish the death penalty in California and follows a similar ruling that has suspended executions in the state for eight years.
Carney, in a case brought by a death row inmate against the warden of San Quentin state prison, called the death penalty an empty promise that violates the Eighth Amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
"Inordinate and unpredictable delay has resulted in a death penalty system in which very few of the hundreds of individuals sentenced to death have been, or even will be, executed by the State," wrote Carney, a George W. Bush appointee.
He noted that death penalty appeals can last decades and, as a result, most condemned inmates are likely to die of natural causes before their executions are carried out.
Carney also wrote that since the current death penalty system was adopted by California voters 35 years ago, more than 900 people have been sentenced to death, but only 13 have been executed.
"As for the random few for whom execution does become a reality, they will have languished for so long on Death Row that their execution will serve no retributive or deterrent purpose and will be arbitrary," the judge stated.
Gil Garcetti, a former Los Angeles County district attorney who has become an anti-death-penalty activist, called the ruling "truly historic."
"It further proves that the death penalty is broken beyond repair," he said, calling for capital punishment to be replaced with life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Carney's ruling came in a legal petition brought by Ernest Dewayne Jones, sentenced to die in 1994 after being convicted of murdering and raping his girlfriend's mother.
Jones remains on death row "with complete uncertainty as to when, or even whether," his execution will come, the judge wrote, adding, "Mr. Jones is not alone."
Carney's ruling could be appealed by the governor or state attorney general, who both oppose the death penalty. For now, Jones will likely remain on death row.