Court won’t sink CA death penalty

gavel judgeIts fate long in doubt, the death penalty gained a new lease on life in California, driving opponents to muster support for a ballot initiative that would eliminate it once and for all.

The turnaround arose from an unlikely place — the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, itself overturned with such relative frequency that it has developed a reputation for adventuresome rulings. “In a unanimous decision, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the argument on a technicality that it did not address the question of whether life on death row in California constituted cruel and unusual punishment,” as the Los Angeles Times reported. “Lawyers who argued on both sides of the case said the appellate ruling was decided on largely technical grounds and leaves unanswered the larger question of whether lengthy delays are unconstitutional.”

In the details

The ruling hinged on a procedural matter and a theoretical one. “Citing Supreme Court precedent, the panel said that in a habeas corpus petition, as was filed on behalf of a condemned prisoner in this case, the federal courts may not retroactively apply ‘new rules of constitutional criminal procedure’ to overrule a state criminal court’s decision,” the New York Times observed.

Also at issue was whether the very long delays in execution that many faced on California’s death row amounted to a form of torture, running afoul of the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment. “A lower court had determined that the system constituted cruel and unusual punishment because of delays and uncertainty with appeals,” Reason explained. “California has hundreds of prisoners on death row but hasn’t executed anybody in nearly a decade over challenges.” The panel’s ruling left open the question of whether the state’s death penalty regime could be effectively fought on other grounds.

Seizing the initiative

But the battle lines have already shifted from the courts to the ballot box. An initial hurdle has been cleared in the effort to turn policy over to the people themselves. “Death penalty opponents led by former ‘M-A-S-H’ star Mike Farrell can begin collecting signatures for their latest attempt to repeal the ultimate penalty, increasing the chances that California voters will be faced with a choice between competing initiatives next year,” the Associated Press reported. “The secretary of state’s office said Friday that backers have until May 17 to gather nearly 366,000 signatures if the measure is to appear on the November 2016 general election ballot.”

As a result of the litigation, advocates for continuing capital punishment have been put in the unorthodox position of agitating to speed up executions in the name of due process. Before the court, prosecutors had said “delays resulted from its unusually careful efforts to protect the rights of the condemned, and said there was no evidence that the outcomes were random,” as the New York Times noted.

Now, according to the AP, death penalty supporters “are attempting to gather enough signatures for their proposal to speed up executions by providing more appellate lawyers and speedier appeals. That campaign was announced earlier this month by several prosecutors, police officers and family members of victims.” The effort gained steam early with the support of district attorneys statewide, the wire noted separately, “including Orange County’s Tony Rackauckas and San Bernardino County’s Mike Ramos.”

“There are currently 18 inmates who’ve exhausted all appeals and are cleared for death once a suitable form of execution is approved. Ramos estimates there are another 140 who are awaiting their final appeal before the state Supreme Court. The proposed overhaul would get the inmates to this final-appeal stage more quickly, but would do nothing about the growing backlog of cases awaiting the seven justices on the state’s high court.”

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