The Cautionary Instruction: California death penalty struck down

Friday, 18 July 2014 06:00 AM Written by  Matt Mangino

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A Federal Judge struck down California's death penalty. US District Judge Cormac Carney found that lengthy delays in carrying out the death penalty amounted to a violation of the Eight Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Judge Carney wrote:

Inordinate and unpredictable delay has resulted in a death penalty system in which very few of the hundreds of individuals sentenced to death have been, or even will be, executed by the State. It has resulted in a system in which arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed.

My book The Executioner's Toll, 2010, released in April made those very arguments:

Let's say that death penalty verdicts continue at 2010's pace of 112 per year for the next ten years. There would be approximately 4,500 men and women on death row. Let's say that all 32 states with the death penalty executed one offender a month for the next ten years; these occurrences are not completely realistic since only eight states have more than 120 offenders on death row. After ten years at that frantic, and frankly impossible, pace, there would be 4,300 executions, still leaving about 200 people on death row. Carrying out an execution today is as freakishly arbitrary as imposing the death penalty was in 1972. If you are one of 697 inmates on California’s death row, a state that has not carried out an execution in five years, and suddenly you are scheduled for execution — that is a lot like being struck by lightning.

The death penalty has been a permissible form of punishment for certain crimes in the United States throughout the nation's history, with the first recorded case occurring in 1608, according to Jurist at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

The Supreme Court has held on numerous occasions that state proscription of the death penalty is not a violation of the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The court has also held, however, that the Eighth Amendment does impose limitations on when and how states may use the death penalty.

The most recent Gallup Poll on the death penalty has support at about 60 percent, down from a high in 1994 of 80 percent. That’s not to say that 60 percent is not a significant number or that 32 of 50 states with the death penalty is not a substantial majority. But, unequivocally the death penalty is trending downward.

(Image: The death chamber of the lethal injection facility at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif., shown here in a 2010 file photo. Eric Risberg/Associated Press)


Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by GateHouse New Service. You can read his musings on the criminal justice system at www.mattmangino.com and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino. His new book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010: The Crimes, Arrests, Trials, Appeals, Last Meals, Final Words and Executions of 46 Persons in the United States is now available from McFarland & Company publishers.

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