The former is not serving the latter and that makes for a dysfunctional system, as this editorial from the New York Times reports.
“How has it gone on this long?” Justice Antonin Scalia asked a lawyer for the State of Florida during oral arguments in March on a condemned inmate’s appeal. The legal issue in that case had to do with how states define intellectual disability, but Justice Scalia was troubled that Freddie Lee Hall had been on Florida’s death row for more than three decades.
In that same session, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that the last 10 people executed by the state had spent an average of 24.9 years on death row.
“Do you think that that is consistent with the purposes of the death penalty,” Justice Kennedy asked the state’s lawyer, “and is it consistent with sound administration of the justice system?”
Last Wednesday, in an unrelated case, a federal judge in California answered that question with a resounding no. The state’s death-penalty system is “so plagued by inordinate and unpredictable delay,” wrote United States District Judge Cormac Carney, that it violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
In a remarkable ruling overturning the death sentence of Ernest Dewayne Jones, who was sentenced in 1995 for the murder of his girlfriend’s mother, Judge Carney, an appointee of President George W. Bush, pointed out that of the more than 900 people California has sentenced to death since 1978, 13 have been executed. More than 40 percent of the rest have been on death row for at least 19 years, and the backlog is growing.
The judge found that the delays are primarily due not to inmates’ repeated appeals, as is often assumed, but to the state’s own foot-dragging and underfunding of its indigent defense system.
California law provides for an automatic appeal of all death sentences, but it takes three to five years before death-row inmates — all of whom are indigent — are even assigned a lawyer. It takes four more years for the lawyer to go through the voluminous trial record and file an appeal, and two to three years for the State Supreme Court, which hears only 20 to 25 death-penalty appeals per year, to schedule oral arguments.
Tack on another three to five years for state habeas corpus petitions, which bring claims that often don’t arise in the first appeal, such as ineffective assistance of counsel. Add 10 for federal habeas corpus claims, and the result is what Judge Carney charitably called a “completely dysfunctional” system.
Retrieved July 21, 2014 from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/21/opinion/A-Lifetime-on-Californias-Death-Row.html