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The fate of California’s death penalty was argued in a Pasadena courtroom Monday, as an appeals court panel heard arguments over a ruling by a federal judge in Orange County who found the system is so “dysfunctional” that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments that mostly centered on the question of whether the issue should first be decided by the California Supreme Court.

The appeal, engineered by Attorney General Kamala Harris, stems from last year’s Santa Ana federal court ruling that found the state’s death penalty law unconstitutional in the case of defendant Ernest Jones, who was convicted for the 1992 rape and murder of a Southern California accountant.

In the July 2014 decision overturning Jones’ death sentence, U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney ruled the death penalty system was so plagued with delay that a death sentence in California essentially translates to life in prison.

Harris is asking the appeals court to reverse that decision, arguing that the long delays are caused by California’s efforts to protect the rights of death row inmates.

But the 9th Circuit panel seemed primarily concerned with the procedural issue of where the Jones appeal should first be heard.

Judge Paul Watford, for example, said he had “major problems” with the lower court’s decision that the federal bench could rule on the matter before the California Supreme Court takes up the case.

Since 1978, 900 people have been sentenced to death in California. Since that time, 94 have died of natural causes in prison, and only 13 have been executed. California’s death row is said to be the largest in the country.

During Monday’s nearly hour-long hearing, Judge Johnnie Rawlinson questioned whether there is precedent to conclude that decades of delay in carrying out executions can be considered cruel and unusual — or unconstitutional — punishment.

“Has the Supreme Court said the mere fact one is lingering on death row … constitutes a constitutional violation?” Rawlinson asked.

In his ruling, Carney wrote that the “dysfunctional” administration of the state’s death penalty system has resulted “in an inordinate and unpredictable period of delay preceding their actual execution.”

“Indeed, for most, systemic delay has made their execution so unlikely that the death sentence carefully and deliberately imposed by the jury has been quietly transformed into one no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: life in prison, with the remote possibility of death,” the judge wrote. “As for the random few for whom execution does become a reality, they will have languished for so long on death row that their execution will serve no retributive or deterrent purpose and will be arbitrary.”

Harris said she decided to appeal the decision “because it is not supported by the law, and it undermines important protections that our courts provide to defendants.”

Between 1978 and last summer, 94 of the more than 900 inmates sentenced to death have died behind bars before execution could be carried out, according to Carney’s ruling. Thirty-nine inmates won appeals and were not re-sentenced to death. There are 748 inmates on Death Row awaiting execution or rulings on appeals.

Carney’s ruling applied solely to Jones’ case, but a ruling by the 9th Circuit would be precedent-setting.

It was not immediately known when the panel would issue its opinion.

— Wire Reports

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