Astounding news: half an hour ago, US district court judge Cormac J. Carney issued a decision in Jones vs. Chappell declaring the death penalty in California unconstitutional.
The full text of the decision can be found here.
Judge Carney's decision rests primarily on administrative grounds, namely, on the delay and uncertainty on California's death row. Judge Carney points out that, since the reinstatement of the death penalty in California in 1978, only 13 people have been executed. Meanwhile, scores of inmates have died of suicide or natural causes, and 748 inmates are still on death row, litigating their case in pursuit of post-conviction remedies. These delays, writes Judge Carney, short-change the meaning of the death penalty and break its promise to the victims' families, the citizens and tax payers of California, and the inmates themselves, who spend years, and frequently decades, in a state of uncertainty. Under these circumstances, California's death penalty is no more than life without parole, with or without an execution at the end.
A cynical perspective on the decision would be that all the state needs to do is to streamline the death penalty and execute death row inmates faster. Indeed, that is what the California District Attorney's Association has advocated recently. However, Judge Carney spends a considerable amount of time discussing the existing appeals and habeas corpus proceedings, and finds them constitutionally adequate. He comes to the conclusion that the only solution to California's death penalty's unconstitutionality is to abolish capital punishment in California altogether.
The big question is what happens next. Presumably, the warden is represented by the California Attorney General. However, Kamala Harris is personally opposed to the death penalty, and never sought it while she was the San Francisco County District Attorney. If the state does not appeal this decision, it has huge consequences not only in California, but nation wide. California's death row is the largest in the nation. State-wide abolition, judicial or legislative, creates a critical mass of abolitionist states and might mean the end of capital punishment in America. But even if the state appeals to the Ninth Circuit, the decision is a prime example of the anti-punitive thinking that has become the mark of recession-era politics. Note that the decision does not go into death row conditions, humane execution methods, or any other dignity-based argument. Even though money is not explicitly mentioned, this is classic humonetarionism. Judge Carney is not arguing that the death penalty is inhumane; he is arguing that it is badly managed. As I point out in Cheap on Crime, these types of arguments have become far more persuasive in policy making and frequently succeed where classic human rights reasoning failed. It is of enormous importance that this logic has permeated not only the policy making arena, but judicial reasoning as well.
More updates in the next few days.