Have We Seen the Last of the Death Penalty in California?

Cormac J. Carney District Judge.jpg

Court ruling could mean big changes at San Quentin

by Brian Leubitz

The death penalty isn’t actually executed in California anymore. Oh, our courts sentence people to death, but it hasn’t actually been executed since 2006, when Clarence Ray Allen was put to death in January.

Bay Area Fox affiliate KTVU did a little slideshow that shows our death row looking more like the early bird special at the local buffet. For a variety of legal and pragmatic reasons, we just don’t perform executions anymore. And now that is increasingly likely to stay the case for the foreseeable future:

A conservative federal judge from Southern California may have done what progressives have been trying to do for years: end the death penalty in California.

The July 16th order by Judge Cormac J. Carney (PDF), in the case of Jones v. Chappell, is an astonishing document. It takes no position on the morality of the death penalty, or whether it’s inherently cruel for the state to take a life. But it repeatedly spanks the State of California for turning the process of executions into such an unpredictable fiasco that inmates – and the families of victims – have no idea whether, or when, a condemned man will die. (48Hills / Tim Redmond)

A few things before I continue. First, if you aren’t reading 48Hills, you should be. I don’t always agree with Tim on some of the local San Francisco issues, but he brings a great insight on local politics. Next, if you are interested in this issue, it might be worth the time to read the whole decision linked above and here.  Now, Judge Carney was appointed by Gray Davis before getting the George W Bush appointment to the federal bench, but he was still a Bush appointee FWIW. (Also, he was a former USFL player!)

As Tim points out in his story, the decision is about process. We have sentenced 900 people to death since 1978, and only 13 have been executed. Certainly the deterrent effect is not what we are going for here. And because we underfund public defender services, death penalty appeals take years upon years to complete. That’s not even to mention the questions of how we perform (or don’t) the executions.

In 2012, California voters very narrowly retained the death penalty, 52-48, by rejecting Prop 34. But how much longer before those numbers flip? And even if we are inclined to retain it, are we going to adequately fund it? Perhaps it won’t be too long until we get another crack at a similar measure on the ballot.