Capital punishment remains a controversial practice, but one that remains in the U.S. despite its removal in other nations. That said, public opinion has changed over the last few decades, and while there’s still a majority in support of capital punishment, the numbers are dropping. Pew Research put approval at 78 percent in 1996 and 55 percent in 2013, and Gallup was slightly higher with 80 percent approval in 1994 and 60 percent in 2013.
However, 2014 has seen major attention drawing legal efforts on behalf of death penalty cases. The most recent ruling highlights one of the biggest systematic problems with our death penalty process — and it’s no longer about public opinion, at least in California. It’s back to the basics of cruel and unusual punishment, but instead of focusing on the method of execution, the California District Court case is instead looking at the wait time — the delay before death rather than death itself.
The case was brought by petitioner Ernest Dewayne Jones who, in 1995, was sentenced to death. Jones is still being held in wait, with no idea if or when his execution will take place. The order, from Judge Cormac J. Carney, finding California’s death penalty system unconstitutional, noted that 900 people have been sentenced to death since 1978 and only thirteen of those 900 have been put to death. More inmates on death row have died from suicide or other natural causes than have been executed as per their sentencing. “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,” write Carney.
Based on the Condemned Inmate Summary List as of June 2014, the court finds that 40 percent of inmates awaiting execution — Jones being one of them — have been waiting for more than nineteen years, and as the size grows, the wait time and delays are exacerbated. Elisabeth A. Semel, director of the death penalty clinic at Berkley University of California law school, told The New York Times that the case would likely be referenced in cases to follow, both in California and in other U.S. states. She said Carney’s decision is “a stunningly important and unprecedented ruling,” and calls the opinion both “factually dense” and “well-reasoned.” Even so, she believes the ruling is almost certainly going to see state appeal at the Ninth Circuit level.