Court rejects challenge to California death penalty

By Brian Melley
Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) - California's death penalty survived a legal challenge last Thursday when a federal appeals court reversed a lower court ruling that had found it was unconstitutional because of excessive delays.

Without discussing the merits of a murderer's claims, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the lower court was barred from considering a novel constitutional theory that found delays in carrying out executions amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney, an appointee of President George W. Bush, ruled last year that California's death penalty was an empty promise with unpredictable delays that led to arbitrary and rare executions that violated the Constitution's Eighth Amendment.

More than 900 people have been sentenced to death in California since 1978, but only 13 have been executed.

The ruling by three justices appointed by Democratic presidents came as the state tries to revive executions that have been stalled nearly a decade and as supporters and opponents of the death penalty take to the streets to get dueling referendums on the state ballot next year.

The appeals court did not address the validity of claims by a Los Angeles man sentenced to die for the 1992 rape and murder of his girlfriend's mother because the lower court applied a new legal theory instead of federal law that existed at the time of his conviction.

The state is attempting to address those concerns by proposing a single-drug method that would replace multi-drug combinations that have led to problems in several states.

The state has scheduled a hearing on the proposal in January, but there is a nationwide shortage of execution drugs and supporters and opponents of capital punishment don't expect executions to rapidly resume.

Decades-long delays in getting inmates to the death chamber could be addressed by voters next year if death penalty supporters gather enough signatures to put a reform measure on the ballot that calls for providing more appellate lawyers and speedier appeals.

Opponents of the death penalty are also gathering signatures for a ballot measure that would ban capital punishment in California. A similar measure was defeated by 4 percentage points in 2012.

Opposition to executions has been gaining traction in some of the 31 states that allow the death penalty.

The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled this year that the death penalty served no legitimate purpose. Nebraska lawmakers repealed capital punishment, but death penalty advocates responded with a statewide petition drive that puts the issue to voters a year from now.

Published: Mon, Nov 16, 2015