A federal judge in Southern California declared California’s death penalty unconstitutional yesterday, which will give impetus to a plan introduced by three former governors to push for reforms of the death penalty that would deal with the judge’s main objection of long delays.
In February former governors George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Gray Davis announced an initiative to streamline the slow appeals process in death penalty cases. It is the uncertainty and unpredictable delays with the process that caused federal judge Cormac J. Carney to strike down the death penalty. The case he ruled on dealt with a man condemned to die in 1994.
Of course, one way to eliminate a process is to throw many obstacles in the functioning of that process, and then declare that it is not working and must be shut down. That is essentially what is happening with California’s death penalty. Those who object to the death penalty use all legal means to delay carrying out the sentence then complain because of those delays the death penalty is uncertain and should be declared unconstitutional.
While there have been no executions in California since 2006, some 700 prisoners are on the state’s death row. The three governors wanted to clean up the death penalty appeals process and eliminate delays that essentially grind the death penalty to a halt.
However, they got a late start in the signature gathering when they filed an initiative in February so decided in May that they would not be able to qualify the initiative in time for the 2014 election. They pulled back the measure and are determined to try for the 2016 ballot. The new ruling will undoubtedly spur that effort.
As recently as 2012, voters defeated an effort to do away with the death penalty. Proposition 34 would have required that all prisoners facing a sentence of death would see their sentence changed to life without parole. The measure was defeated 52% to 48%.
With the public seemingly on the side of keeping the death penalty and the new ruling to undercut it, expect supporters to renew the effort for a 2016 ballot measure – which already looks from this far away to be a very busy ballot.