California AG Kamala Harris to appeal ruling against death penalty

A federal judge ruled that California’s death penalty violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, but the case could work its way up through courts.


A federal judge’s “flawed” decision declaring California’s enforcement of the death penalty unconstitutional will be appealed, state Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris announced Thursday.

Harris will ask the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn last month’s ruling by U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney, who said decades-long delays and uncertainty about whether inmates will be executed violated the Constitution’s ban on cruel or unusual punishment.

Harris personally opposes the death penalty but promised voters she would enforce it.

Carney’s ruling sparked national attention. He noted that more than 900 people have been sentenced to death in California since 1978, but 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 wrote. “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.”

Opponents of the death penalty had urged Harris to let the ruling stand, although it affected only the case before Carney. A decision by the 9th Circuit would affect all of California and other western states.

Carney’s ruling overturned the death sentence of Ernest Dewayne Jones, a Los Angeles man sentenced to die for the 1992 rape and murder of Julia Miller, his girlfriend’s mother.

No one in California has been executed since 2006, when a federal judge ruled that the state’s three-drug lethal injection procedure risked the possibility that inmates would suffer excruciating pain. The judge ordered the state to come up with a new protocol.

The Brown administration has been working on a single-drug method of execution but has yet to unveil it. Other states have had trouble getting supplies of lethal drugs because manufacturers don’t want their products used in executions.

Carney’s ruling raised points that had already been made by several studies. For every inmate executed, seven on death row have died from natural causes, he wrote. To deplete death row, the state would have to execute more than one inmate a week for the next 14 years, he said.

“No rational person,” Carney said, “can question that the execution of an individual carries with it the solemn obligation of the government to ensure that the punishment is not arbitrarily imposed and that it furthers the interests of society.”


Critics of the ruling said the U.S. Supreme Court had rejected similar arguments against the death penalty.

“I am appealing the court’s decision because it is not supported by the law, and it undermines important protections that our courts provide to defendants,” Harris said.

The fate of the ruling may depend on which three-judge panel gets the case.

Twitter: @mauradolan