Removing one of several obstacles to resuming executions in California, a federal appeals panel struck down a judge’s ruling that the state’s snarled capital punishment system is arbitrary and unconstitutional, the Los Angeles Times reports. In overturning last year’s ruling by federal judge Cormac Carney, the panel did not squarely address whether California’s death penalty is so dysfunctional that it violates the U.S. Constitution. “The elephant is still in the room,” said John Phillipsborn, a San Francisco attorney in the case on behalf of criminal defense lawyers. “The issues the [case] framed are still going to need to be addressed…. Something has to give.” The opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit addressed the case of inmate Ernest DeWayne Jones, sentenced to death in 1995 for the murder and rape of his girlfriend’s mother. When the appeal finally reached federal court 19 years later, Carney ruled that California’s appeals system was plagued by “systemic delay and dysfunction,” making executions so rare that they were random and thus unconstitutional.
The appellate panel reversed the decision, calling Carney’s logic “novel” and unsupported by legal precedent. “Many agree … that California’s capital punishment system is dysfunctional and that the delay between sentencing and execution in California is extraordinary,” wrote Judge Susan Graber, Nevertheless, she said, the Jones decision asked the court to “apply a novel constitutional rule,” something barred in reviews of habeas corpus cases. The taxpayer-supported Habeas Corpus Resource Center must decide whether to appeal to a larger panel of the 9th Circuit or to the U.S. Supreme Court, or both. In the meantime, California probably remains years away from resuming executions, which were halted in 2006.