LOS ANGELES - A federal judge ruled California's death penalty unconstitutional Wednesday, writing that lengthy and unpredictable delays have resulted in an arbitrary and unfair capital punishment system.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney represents a legal victory for those who want to abolish the death penalty in California and follows a similar ruling that has suspended executions in the state for eight years.
Carney, in a case brought by a death row inmate against the warden of San Quentin state prison, called the death penalty an empty promise that violates the Eighth Amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
"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," wrote Carney, a George W. Bush appointee.
He noted that death penalty appeals can last decades and, as a result, most condemned inmates are likely to die of natural causes before their executions are carried out.
Carney also wrote that since the current death penalty system was adopted by California voters 35 years ago, more than 900 people have been sentenced to death, but only 13 have been executed.
"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," the judge stated.
While the decision's only immediate effect was on California, legal experts said it could echo elsewhere as the issues it addresses are in no way unique.
"Every state with a significant death row has the problem of cases taking a long time," said Gabriel J. Chin, a law professor at the University of California, Davis.
Chin said he sees a long appeals process ahead and expects the case will reach the U.S. Supreme Court. The ruling could be appealed by either the governor or the state attorney general.
Gil Garcetti, a former Los Angeles County district attorney who has become an anti-death-penalty activist, called the ruling "truly historic."
"It further proves that the death penalty is broken beyond repair," he said.
Carney's ruling came in a legal petition brought by Ernest Dewayne Jones, sentenced to die in 1994 after being convicted of murdering and raping his girlfriend's mother.
Jones remains on death row "with complete uncertainty as to when, or even whether," his execution will come, the judge wrote.
Carney noted that "arbitrary factors" such as the manner in which paperwork is handled are what "determine whether an individual will actually be executed."
The ruling was not without critics. Republican state Sen. Jim Nielsen, former chairman of the California Board of Prison Terms, issued a statement saying, "The current system needs improvement, but to completely get rid of the death penalty is unconscionable for victims and their families and society.
"Victims and their families need and deserve justice. This ruling denies them and society justice."
He said Californians have long supported the death penalty, and he urged Attorney General Kamala Harris to "uphold the will of the people" and appeal.
Another federal judge put California's death penalty on hold in 2006 when he ruled the state's lethal injection procedures needed overhaul.
The judge found that the state's procedures created too much risk that an inmate would suffer extreme pain while being executed. At that time, lethal injections were carried out in San Quentin's old gas chamber, which the judge found too cramped, too dark and too old for prison staff to properly administer execution drugs.
Since then, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has built a new execution chamber on the grounds of San Quentin in Northern California and made changes to its procedures.
A new federal judge has taken over the case and has not ruled on whether those changes are enough for the state to restart executions.
Additionally, the corrections department is drafting a new set of regulations for administering lethal injections. No executions can take place until the new rules are formally adopted.