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"A system that serves no penological purpose... is unconstitutional."
July 16, 2014 4:22 PM   Subscribe

A federal judge declared California's death penalty unconstitutional Wednesday, saying delays of 25 years or more in deciding appeals and carrying out occasional executions have created an arbitrary and irrational system that serves no legitimate purpose. Executions in California have already been on hold since 2006, due to problems with the procedures associated with lethal injection. If the ruling is upheld, California will join 18 other states (plus D.C.) that have abolished capital punishment. (Read the court's opinion here.)
posted by scody (46 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
Here's the LA Times article on this. I also found the Wikipedia article on capital punishment in California has a good overview of the timeline/issues.
posted by insectosaurus at 4:32 PM on July 16 [1 favorite]


It is exorbitantly costly, unfair and serves no legitimate purpose.

I find it deeply troubling how long it took us to get here. But at least we did!




If anyone needs me I'll be out doing crimes.
posted by aubilenon at 4:35 PM on July 16 [11 favorites]


Unclear from the article: have the other states that have abolished it also done so on legal grounds? In other words, could this ruling possibly lead to a Supreme Court decision?
posted by curious nu at 4:35 PM on July 16


It could; there's a long way to go, though. It has to work through the 9th Circuit, and then the California State Supreme Court.
posted by truex at 4:41 PM on July 16


So ironically, not killing death row inmates is what makes the death penalty cruel and unusual punishment in California. It's an interesting ruling, but I'll take it!
posted by TwoWordReview at 4:41 PM on July 16 [14 favorites]


could this ruling possibly lead to a Supreme Court decision?

At the rate the SCOTUS is going a court decision would probably declare all felons non-citizens that the constitution doesn't apply to.
posted by hellojed at 4:54 PM on July 16 [9 favorites]


(Just wanted to say thank you for linking to the ruling. Being able to read actual court opinions - on the day of the ruling, even! - is one of my favorite things about the internet, and it's always nice if I don't have to go poking around to find the PDF. Thanks!)
posted by kristi at 4:55 PM on July 16 [5 favorites]


I'm conflicted by this, as it strikes me as the right outcome for the wrong reason. I would greatly prefer that fundamental changes in public policy originate from the legislature or directly from the electorate.

I realize that that's unlikely to happen, but I am concerned about the extent to which we have come to systematically rely on the courts to be a pressure release for bad decisions in our laws and public policies. The courts can be chancy and frequently inconsistence in their vigilance; they should be our last resort, and not our first, for the protection of human rights and the furtherance of social justice.
posted by Nerd of the North at 5:02 PM on July 16 [3 favorites]


In this case the legislative approach was tried and rejected in California as recently as the 2012 election, where the abolition of the death penalty initiative was rejected by something like 52-48%
posted by TwoWordReview at 5:05 PM on July 16 [3 favorites]


Welcome to the 20th century, California.
posted by clvrmnky at 5:11 PM on July 16 [1 favorite]


The simple fact that the death penalty is so capriciously appealed in a disparate manner to different sub-populations pretty much means that any judge is gotta be willing to ignore a whole lot of fundamental legal bedrock in order to justify the way the death penalty is applied in our courts. Granted there are a ton of judicial hacks on the bench but sooner or later facts will win out.
posted by vuron at 5:11 PM on July 16


I realize that that's unlikely to happen, but I am concerned about the extent to which we have come to systematically rely on the courts to be a pressure release for bad decisions in our laws and public policies. The courts can be chancy and frequently inconsistence in their vigilance; they should be our last resort, and not our first, for the protection of human rights and the furtherance of social justice.

I think it's that literally every other gear an mechanism within the system is failed or malfunctioning. The entire machine is broken, save for the operators flipping the switches to make it limp along with all the broken parts.

We're relying on the courts because everything else has failed us.
posted by emptythought at 5:15 PM on July 16 [8 favorites]


Only 18?
posted by angerbot at 5:17 PM on July 16 [1 favorite]


Only 18?

Yep, the list is here. However, there are a number of states where capital punishment is still on the books but it hasn't actually been applied for decades. (Breakdown of executions since 1976 by state here; individual state-by-state numbers here.) So, for example, even though Wyoming has the death penalty, it's only executed one prisoner since 1976, and none in the past 20 years. Compare to the horror show that is Texas, which accounts for 37% of all executions since 1976 (515 out of 1383 total).
posted by scody at 5:46 PM on July 16 [2 favorites]


I realize that that's unlikely to happen, but I am concerned about the extent to which we have come to systematically rely on the courts to be a pressure release for bad decisions in our laws and public policies.

This is one of the explicit purposes of a judiciary - to strike down unlawful public policy, and unconstitutional laws.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:47 PM on July 16 [9 favorites]


It has to work through the 9th Circuit, and then the California State Supreme Court.

I don't understand the second part there. Aren't federal courts judicially 'above' State courts?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 5:57 PM on July 16


*yawns* I'm getting a little tired** of "Gay Marriage Ban Struck Down" threads. Now let us move on to "Death Penalty Unconstitutional" threads.

I'm not sure what the third thing is, but I'd like to see the trifecta in my lifetime.

**Not really. But it is nice that they're getting sort of old hat!
posted by mudpuppie at 6:05 PM on July 16 [1 favorite]


Good. It's a fucking embarrassment that this state is so liberal and progressive but so fucking barbaric at the same time. Boldly forward we go.
posted by Talez at 6:22 PM on July 16 [7 favorites]


This is good. All the things are good. Except SCOTUS.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:22 PM on July 16


angerbot: "Only 18?"

Oregon officially has the death penalty. Last execution in 1997. The current Governor announced in 2011 a moratorium on executions in Oregon. There's a good chance that the death penalty is through in Oregon.
posted by jgaiser at 6:33 PM on July 16


The solution for delays is not to allow them, not to deprive victims of justice. And arbitrariness is easily addressed by putting more of this garbage on the curb rather than allowing to stink up the house.
posted by MattD at 7:24 PM on July 16


Another solution for the delays is to stop using capital punishment.
posted by swerve at 7:46 PM on July 16 [9 favorites]


The solution for delays is not to allow them, not to deprive victims of justice.

Two points: 1) There is no unanimity among victims that the death penalty equals justice, regardless of how often prosecutors try to make this claim; 2) Greater limits on appeals in order to hasten the speed of executions (as in Texas) drastically increases the the likelihood of innocent people being put to death.

Many prosectors, by the way, are themselves increasingly opposed to the death penalty on the grounds expressed in this article. In fact, as I'm sure you noticed -- because I'm sure you read the article, right? -- one of the leading opponents to the death penalty in California is the former District Attorney of Los Angeles:
The ruling "further proves that the death penalty is broken beyond repair," said Gil Garcetti, who sought numerous death sentences as Los Angeles County district attorney but joined the 2012 initiative campaign to repeal capital punishment. "It is exorbitantly costly, unfair and serves no legitimate purpose."
Similarly, the 2012 ballot initiative to abolish capital punishment was actually endorsed by the same conservative Republicans who originally wrote the act reinstating the death penalty in California in 1978, on the exact same grounds that the death penalty is not only broken, it is unfixable (previously).
posted by scody at 7:47 PM on July 16 [11 favorites]


And arbitrariness is easily addressed by putting more of this garbage on the curb rather than allowing to stink up the house.

You embarrass yourself.

I got called for jury duty last week, here in San Francisco. It's a murder trial. The judge emphasized that it was not, repeat not, a capital case. Which - yeah. It's San Francisco; we don't elect DAs who will apply the death penalty. That is our right as voters, and we are not the only ones in the country who exercise it that way.
posted by rtha at 7:58 PM on July 16 [8 favorites]


Oh, and speaking of Texas and what happens with a system that's eager to speed along executions as quickly as possible: anyone who wants to be able to utter the word "justice" with a straight face had better take a long, hard look at the case of Cameron Todd Willingham.
posted by scody at 8:00 PM on July 16 [11 favorites]


MattD: "not to deprive victims of justice."

It's a damn good thing that the purpose of the law is not retribution for the victim (aka revenge) but rather justice for society.
posted by notsnot at 8:29 PM on July 16 [19 favorites]


This is one of the explicit purposes of a judiciary - to strike down unlawful public policy, and unconstitutional laws.

Yes, but that's meant to be a failsafe mechanism, not a way to let legislatures punt on diffficult decisions. Consider abortion, for instance. Legislatures in the USA aren't able to discuss the matter sensibly, so abortion rights are effectively defined by court decisions. That's not how the division of powers is supposed to work.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:38 PM on July 16 [1 favorite]


Part of it is about preventing mob rule though.
posted by bleep at 8:45 PM on July 16 [1 favorite]


I realize that that's unlikely to happen, but I am concerned about the extent to which we have come to systematically rely on the courts to be a pressure release for bad decisions in our laws and public policies.
This is one of the explicit purposes of a judiciary - to strike down unlawful public policy, and unconstitutional laws.
Yes, but the courts are literally the last line of defense on these issues.

I think on too many issues too many of us are willing to cede the fight at the legislative level because we assume the courts will perform the function you describe. I believe that's dangerously misguided and courts disaster if there is any major shift in the courts which (here I'm offering my personal opinion and not a statement of fact) have become more and more influenced by partisan politics throughout my lifetime.
posted by Nerd of the North at 9:35 PM on July 16


have the other states that have abolished it also done so on legal grounds? In other words, could this ruling possibly lead to a Supreme Court decision?

Mostly states have abolished capital punishment on political grounds. My personal opinion is that our Supreme Court would love a reason to declare the death penalty unconstitutional, but that's a very difficult thing to do. It's much simpler to say, as this federal court did, "The death penalty as you're applying it is unconstitutional, so go back to the drawing board." In other words, this isn't the judiciary knocking down the death penalty per se. This is the judiciary kicking the issue back at the political apparatus, restarting the debate and giving your representatives another chance to opt out.
posted by cribcage at 9:53 PM on July 16


The solution for delays is not to allow them

Yeah, lets just drag them out behind the woodshed and do a double tap to the head right after the verdict. Better for everyone.
posted by Justinian at 9:56 PM on July 16 [1 favorite]


"not to deprive victims of justice." Biggest Lie ever. The Victim is dead and fully deprived of Justice whatever we do. I've had no one close to me who died from premeditated murder, but relatives who died from the actions of a drunk driver and a malpracticing doctor. Why can't I have the 'justice' of seeing the perpetrators die in front of me?

"not to deprive persons attached to the victims the Joy of Vengeance." FTFY.

"lets just drag them out behind the woodshed and do a double tap to the head right after the verdict. Better for everyone." And it is so helpful in pre-empting the discovery the 5-10% of unjust convictions that occur. (Your local rate may vary, but in Texas, you'll never know because they're so damn good at killing.)
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:02 PM on July 16 [1 favorite]


The solution for delays is not to allow them, not to deprive victims of justice.

Yes, as oneswellfoop point out, this would result in the execution of innocent people. Even more so than already occurs.

I've made this point before, but the Innocence Project has exonerated (and secured the release of) 18 people sentenced to the death penalty on the strength of DNA evidence.

The other point is, what you call 'delays', lawyers call 'appeals'. Appeals are a necessary part of the justice system, to enable mistakes of law or fact to be rectified.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 10:30 PM on July 16 [3 favorites]


In other justice news, I learned that prisoners in California have access to safe clean cells ... if they pay for them.
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:38 AM on July 17 [1 favorite]


“This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent. Quite to the contrary, we have repeatedly left that question unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on alleged ‘actual innocence’ is constitutionally cognizable.”
-- Justice Antonin Scalia
posted by robotmonkeys at 12:43 AM on July 17 [4 favorites]


Wat
posted by bleep at 12:51 AM on July 17


I'm terrified of what happens when this reaches the Supreme Court, which it definitely will if the Ninth Circuit affirms the decision. I don't think the votes are there to strike down capital punishment nationwide, which means we may get yet another Scalia monstrosity. In this area, Kennedy has been swayed repeatedly by the argument that there is a trend among states to do X (e.g., deciding to stop applying the death penalty to minors), and there is not much of a trend here.

It's been 20 years since Blackmun's dissent to denial of cert in Callins v. Collins, which to me still best explains why the death penalty should have been abolished long, long ago:
From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death. For more than 20 years I have endeavored--indeed, I have struggled--along with a majority of this Court, to develop procedural and substantive rules that would lend more than the mere appearance of fairness to the death penalty endeavor. Rather than continue to coddle the Court's delusion that the desired level of fairness has been achieved and the need for regulation eviscerated, I feel morally and intellectually obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed. It is virtually self evident to me now that no combination of procedural rules or substantive regulations ever can save the death penalty from its inherent constitutional deficiencies. The basic question--does the system accurately and consistently determine which defendants "deserve" to die?--cannot be answered in the affirmative.
posted by sallybrown at 5:32 AM on July 17 [8 favorites]


It has to work through the 9th Circuit, and then the California State Supreme Court.

I don't understand the second part there. Aren't federal courts judicially 'above' State courts?


Federal courts are superior to state courts in matters of federal law, and state courts are supreme in matters of state law. Because this case is based on the US Constitution and was heard by a federal judge, that's probably just a typo for US Supreme court. California state courts won't have a say in this case.

If the case had been heard by a California state judge and decided based on the California state constitution independent of the US Constitution, then the US Supreme Court would have no say in the matter, and a ruling by the California Supreme Court would be the end of the matter.
posted by fogovonslack at 9:02 AM on July 17 [1 favorite]


Federal judge's ruling on California death penalty stuns experts
posted by scody at 10:32 AM on July 17


Definitely a strange ruling, and I doubt it's going to end here.

I wouldn't mind your hanging, boys, but you wait in jail so long -- Jerry
posted by uosuaq at 7:24 PM on July 17


From Charles J. Ogletree Jr. (law professor at Harvard): The Death Penalty is Incompatible with Human Dignity:
I have wondered countless times over the past 30 years whether I would live to see the end of the death penalty in the United States. I now know that day will come, and I believe that the current Supreme Court will be its architect.

In its ruling in Hall v. Florida in May, the court — with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy at the helm — reminded us that the core value animating the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishments clause is the preservation of human dignity against the affront of unnecessarily harsh punishment. Hall, which prohibited a rigid test in use in Florida for gauging whether a defendant is intellectually disabled, was the most recent in a series of opinions in which the court has juxtaposed retribution — the idea of vengeance for a wrongdoing, which serves as the chief justification for the death penalty — with a recognition of our hopelessly complex and fallible human nature.

[...]

This is why I see an end coming to the death penalty in this country. The overwhelming majority of those facing execution today have what the court [already] termed in Hall to be diminished culpability.
posted by scody at 9:54 AM on July 22 [1 favorite]


Arizona Inmate Dies 2 Hours After Execution Begins
FLORENCE, Ariz. — A condemned Arizona inmate gasped and snorted for more than an hour and a half during his execution Wednesday before he died in an episode sure to add to the scrutiny surrounding the death penalty in the U.S.

Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne's office said Joseph Rudolph Wood was pronounced dead at 3:49 p.m., one hour and 57 minutes after the execution started.

Wood's lawyers had filed an emergency appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court while the execution was underway, demanding that it be stopped. The appeal said Wood was "gasping and snorting for more than an hour."

Word that Justice Anthony Kennedy denied the appeal came about a half hour after Wood's death.
Additional reporting from The New York Times, The Arizona Republic, and The Washington Post.
posted by tonycpsu at 6:33 PM on July 23 [1 favorite]


Jesus wept.

I'm actually in favor of a death penalty in a limited number of cases, but I really can't understand the barbarity of being OK with this. A gallows is more merciful than this. Isn't that enough for Arizona?
posted by tyllwin at 9:42 PM on July 23


Tyllwin: Human life is so fragile; we always seem to hear about people who are killed by freak infections, or a combination of circumstances ,or who "just die". It happens to us all eventually, and many of us will die gasping, trying to manage one last breath. And yet, amazingly, the vast and inscrutable power of the state in its might and majesty seems to be unable to commit murder without making a complete bollocks of it. It's weird.
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:47 AM on July 24 [1 favorite]


More food for thought on the topic of "justice": Federal review stalled after finding forensic errors by FBI lab unit spanned two decades:
Nearly every criminal case reviewed by the FBI and the Justice Department as part of a massive investigation started in 2012 of problems at the FBI lab has included flawed forensic testimony from the agency, government officials said. [...] The inquiry includes 2,600 convictions and 45 death-row cases from the 1980s and 1990s in which the FBI’s hair and fiber unit reported a match to a crime-scene sample before DNA testing of hair became common. [...] The inspector general found in that probe that three defendants were executed and a fourth died on death row in the five years it took officials to reexamine 60 death-row convictions that were potentially tainted by agent misconduct, mostly involving the same FBI hair and fiber analysis unit now under scrutiny.
posted by scody at 10:29 AM on July 30 [1 favorite]


holy fuck.

That is tragic and awful and somewhere a lawyer is mentally adding zeroes to how much they're going to sue the shit out of the FBI for. (I'm assuming the individual analysts can't be sued specifically/privately?)

NB: I want some fuckers to go down for this. The analysts, their supervisors, everyone along the chain who had anything to do with assessing the quality of evidence, and everyone who oversaw them.

Quote: "The findings troubled the bureau, and it stopped the review of convictions last August."

WHAT THE ACTUAL? "Oh dear we are troubled by our past misdeeds so we're going to stop investigating them." How the fuck did they even get away with that?

"...three defendants were executed and a fourth died on death row in the five years it took officials to reexamine 60 death-row convictions..."

Is exactly why executions need to be stopped immediately and banned forever. Anyone who says otherwise is a total barbarian who is fine with innocents being murdered by the state.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:02 AM on July 30 [3 favorites]


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