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California judge rules the state's death penalty unconstitutional

July 17, 2014 - Andrea Johnson
Well, halleluiah!

A federal judge in California has ruled that the state's death penalty unconstitutional.

Judge Cormac J. Carney has ruled that the death penalty is "cruel and unusual punishment" because it is handed down arbitrarily and there are too many delays. Hundreds of people are on death row in California but no one has been executed in the state since 2006, according to The New York Times. The Times gravely notes that Carney's ruling is likely to inspire challenges to the death penalty in other states. So it should.

I would go further than Carney and state that the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment precisely because it causes death. Once the state has killed someone, it cannot bring the condemned back to life even if he is later proven innocent. Just how many innocents do you suppose have been killed by the state in this country's 238-year-old existence? How many men and women have been killed in painful and inhumane ways, which is also a clear violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution? Even in cases where the accused is clearly guilty, there are sometimes mitigating factors, such as the age of the defendant or mental illness or developmental disabilities or impairment due to use of drugs and alcohol.

The death penalty is also cruel because the deliberate taking of a human life is always cruel, regardless of whether it is state-sanctioned. It is likely also cruel not only to the person who is being executed but also to those who are called upon to witness the death of the condemned and to the man or woman who is required to carry out the sentence. The death penalty is unnecessary for public safety when a life sentence without parole is an option. As currently practiced, it is more akin to vengeance. The death penalty is also now "unusual" in the world since few, if any, other Western countries currently make use of the death penalty.

Carney's order will be appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Hopefully, it will inspire challenges to the death penalty in other jurisdictions.


Article Comments



Jul-19-14 9:06 AM

"Cruel and unusual" can and ought to be judged by modern standards, not by medieval drawing and quartering (also cruel and unusual.)" Modern standards would be a facebook poke or maybe a disagree button right.


Jul-18-14 1:34 PM

Sure, there's a certain amount of cruelty involved in a prison sentence. I think our justice system in general could use some serious reform, as some of the sentencing guidelines are draconian. I think prison ought to be more about reform and ensuring the public safety than it ought to be about punishment.

It's a balancing act between the rights of the convict and the rights of society as a whole. What will keep society safe? Is the person who has been convicted a true danger to society? Has he been reformed? Is he remorseful? In the case of a violent serial killer, for instance, the answer is going to be that he is a continuing threat and a sentence of life without parole in a maximum security facility will be called for to ensure the safety of society. Someone busted for pot dealing probably is nowhere near as great a risk.

"Cruel and unusual" can and ought to be judged by modern standards, not by medieval drawing and quartering (also cruel and unusual.)


Jul-18-14 1:07 PM

Andrea: sanction are an act of war


Jul-18-14 1:06 PM

"...and there are too many delays."

Strange that this would be cited as a reason for the ruling. These delays are usually because appeals are working their way through the system. We could shorten up the waits of the condemned, but then it would deny them Due Process.

As for "cruel and unusual", I remember when that was understood in the context of "hung, drawn, and quartered" as a common method of execution. Rather than just execute the condemned, the violence of that process was as drawn out and superfluous as could be imagined by those carrying out the execution.

But if we want to talk about the death penalty as being "cruel", even imprisoning someone could be considered "cruel". If we briefly consider the abhorrant conditions that now exist in the American penal system today, or even briefly consider that holding someone against their will in a cage could be construed as having a significant element of cruelty to it, we woul


Jul-18-14 10:56 AM

Just or unjust war is a different issue than the death penalty. Some wars are just; others are not. Some soldiers have been sent into battle and given their lives in vain or killed others indiscriminately; others killed solely in self defense. I would generally be in favor of using diplomacy and sanctions first and wherever possible and making war a last resort. Unfortunately, there are instances where armed conflict is impossible to avoid.


Jul-18-14 8:10 AM

I don't know but the guys who got drafted into the jungles of Viet Nam were definitely handed a death sentence, over 58,000 of them anyway.

Probably the only cruel and unusual part is making them wait so long to get executed. You know you are talking about the same government that has sent 10's of millions of people to war to protect business interests around the world. The saving grace is even though the government is primarily protecting big business they always stumble across some heinous acts of war to highlight as the reason we must fight and die for our country and the world.


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