A federal appeals court has ruled that condemned California prisoners may not use petition for writ of habeas corpus in federal courts to challenge the systemic delay in their execution.
In 2014 a federal District Court in California granted prisoner Ernest DeWayne Jones’s petition to set aside his death sentence. The court held that the “systemic delay and dysfunction” in California’s post-conviction review process for capital prisoners violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court decision in November 2015. “(D)elay, in large part, is a function of the desire of our courts, state and federal, to get it right, to explore exhaustively, or at least sufficiently, any argument that might save someone’s life,” the court remarked.
“(S)uch delays are the product of a constitutional safeguard, not a constitutional defect, because they assure careful review of the defendant’s conviction and sentence.”
However, the Court of Appeals did not base its decision on an analysis of the constitutionality of California’s system of post-conviction judicial review for capital prisoners. It did so for a procedural reason: the federal courts may not make new constitutional rules of criminal procedure on petition for writ of habeas corpus.
In California, the post-conviction judicial review of cases involving a death sentence includes an automatic appeal to the state Supreme Court and a subsequent discretionary appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, any petitions for writ of habeas corpus to the state or federal courts (known as “collateral review”), and the eventual petition to the U.S. Supreme Court for review of the decisions on collateral review.
A Supreme Court decision in 1989, known as the Teague rule, prohibits the federal courts from considering novel constitutional theories on habeas corpus review.
The District Court in Jones’ case found that “delay is evident at each stage of the post-conviction review process” for capital prisoners in California.
Specifically, more than 900 people have been sentenced to death in the state since 1978; only 13 have been executed. As of 2014, some Death Row inmates had died of natural causes, the sentence of some had been vacated, and 748 remained on Death Row. For those who are eventually executed, “the process will likely take 25 years or more,” opined the District Court.