California voters missed an opportunity to repeal the death penalty, rejecting Proposition 34 on the November 2012 ballot.
As a matter of economics, if nothing else, we supported Proposition 34, saying the cost savings alone justified the replacement of capital punishment with life sentences without the possibility of parole.
In an editorial after the 2012 election, we asked whether Californians were willing to pay for a functional death penalty law. A federal judge’s decision this month may force state officials — and taxpayers — to confront that question.
U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney ruled that the uneven application of California’s death penalty law amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
“Since 1978, when the current death penalty system was adopted by California voters, over 900 people have been sentenced to death for their crimes,” Carney wrote. “Of them, only 13 have been executed. For the rest, the dysfunctional administration of California’s death penalty system has resulted, and will continue to result, in an inordinate and unpredictable period of delay preceding their actual execution.”
Carney, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, went on to say the “systemic delay has made their execution so unlikely that the death sentence carefully and deliberately imposed by the jury has been quietly transformed into one no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: life in prison, with the remote possibility of death. 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 trouble with California’s death penalty comes down to one thing: money.
Despite its exorbitant cost — more than $4 billion since 1978 — the state would need to spend far more to reduce the delays.
Per the U.S. Supreme Court, death row inmates are entitled to an appeal. They’re all indigent, so taxpayers must provide a lawyer. In California, assigning a lawyer takes five to seven years, because the state public defender’s office is understaffed and few private attorneys are willing to take on the work for relatively low fees. With thousands of pages of trial transcripts to review, it takes about three years to file an appeal after a lawyer is assigned.
Death penalty appeals go straight to the state Supreme Court, where it can take two to three years to schedule oral arguments. After the state high court rules, inmates are entitled to an appeal in federal court, which can take 10 more years. It was on just such an appeal that Carney issued his ruling against capital punishment.
It’s likely that Carney’s decision will eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court, which has upheld capital punishment — but has recently raised its own concerns about the time it takes to litigate the death penalty.
Earlier this year, during oral argument in a case from Florida, where the 10 most recent capital cases have taken an average of about 25 years, Justice Anthony Kennedy asked the state’s lawyer: “Do you think that that is consistent with the purposes of the death penalty, and is it consistent with sound administration of the justice system?”
California’s death penalty has been on hold since 2006 due to separate federal litigation over the state’s lethal injection method. With the botched executions in Oklahoma and Arizona, that case has the potential to drag on, reinforcing the issues raised by Carney.