LA QUINTA, Calif. — A federal judge ruled Wednesday that California’s death penalty system is so arbitrary and plagued with delay that it is unconstitutional, a decision that is expected to inspire similar arguments in death penalty appeals around the country.
The state has placed hundreds of people on death row, but has not executed a prisoner since 2006. The result, wrote Judge Cormac J. Carney of United States District Court, is a sentence that “no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: life in prison, with the remote possibility of death.”
That sense of uncertainty and delay, he wrote, “violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.”
About 40 percent of California’s 748 death row inmates have been there more than 19 years.
Judge Carney, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, issued the 29-page order vacating the death sentence of Ernest Dewayne Jones, convicted in 1995 of raping his girlfriend’s mother and stabbing her to death.
Calling it “a stunningly important and unprecedented ruling,” Elisabeth A. Semel, the director of the death penalty clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, law school, said that the “factually dense” and “well reasoned” opinion was likely to be cited in other cases in California and elsewhere.
But its legal sweep will depend on the outcome of the state’s likely appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, she said.
Douglas A. Berman, a sentencing expert at the Ohio State University law school, said the ruling could generate appeals in any of a dozen states with large backups on death row and no recent executions or infrequent ones, as well as the federal system, which has had no execution in more than a decade.
“California is the most extreme example, but Pennsylvania is pretty darned close,” Professor Berman said. He questioned the logic, however, of granting a prisoner “a windfall” because of a state’s inaction.
Professor Berman suggested that California could address the court’s ruling by saying, “ ‘We’ve got to get our act together and move forward with executions.’ ”
“But,” he added, “that’s a heck of a lot easier said than done.”
California voters affirmed the death penalty by a narrow margin in 2012, with 48 percent of voters favoring replacing it with life in prison without parole. That vote, Professor Berman said, “may reflect that they’re comfortable with a system that doesn’t get around to executing somebody.”
The death penalty has been effectively under a moratorium in the state since 2006, when Judge Jeremy Fogel of United States District Court in San Jose ordered changes in the state’s execution methods. In 2008, Ronald M. George, then the chief justice of California, called the system for handling appeals in capital cases “dysfunctional.” A state-appointed commission reached a similar conclusion that year, stating the system was “plagued with excessive delay” in appointing lawyers and in reviews of appeals and petitions before the State Supreme Court.
Mr. Jones’s lead lawyer, Michael Laurence, said in a statement that the legal team was grateful for the decision, adding, “The execution of Mr. Jones, and the others like him whose meritorious legal claims have gone unheard for decades, serves no valid state interest.”
Mr. Jones’s trial for the killing in 1992 of Julia Miller, an accountant, got little attention at the time. It took place down the hall from the murder trial of O. J. Simpson, and The Los Angeles Times published an article comparing the “mundane murder trial” with the nearby “trial of the century.”
Eric M. Freedman, a professor at the Hofstra University law school, said that he doubted the case would make it to the Supreme Court or set national policy on the death penalty, but that it would still resonate.
“The decision is incredibly important in bringing to public consciousness that this has been a political shell game,” he said, with politicians endorsing the death penalty but unwilling to provide the funds for defense lawyers and efficient courts that would keep the system working.
Judge Carney was scathing in his description of California’s administration of capital punishment and said the flaws stemmed mainly from state deficiencies, not abuse of the system by prisoners.
“When an individual is condemned to death in California, the sentence carries with it an implicit promise from the state that it will actually be carried out,” he wrote. It is a promise to the people of the state, who pay for the justice system, and to the jurors who see “evidence of undeniably horrific crimes” and participate in the “agonizing deliberations,” and to the victims and their loved ones. Not the least, he added, “it is made to the hundreds of individuals on death row, as a statement their crimes are so heinous they have forfeited their right to life.”
However, Judge Carney wrote, “for too long now, the promise has been an empty one,” and the result is “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.”
Thus, he concluded, the death penalty system in California “serves no penological purpose.”
“Such a system,” he said, “is unconstitutional.”
A prominent supporter of the death penalty, Kent S. Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, disagreed. Mr. Scheidegger said he found the decision “kind of surprising” since the argument that delays are unconstitutional has been rejected by the Supreme Court. The reason a majority of Americans support the death penalty, he said, “is that the very worst murderers just plain deserve it — that remains true even after long delays.”
Judge Carney, however, wrote that the Supreme Court cases focused on each inmate’s individual delay.
Instead, he noted, Mr. Jones argued that his long-delayed execution would be arbitrary and serve no state purpose “because of systemwide dysfunction in the post-conviction review process.”
The state attorney general, Kamala D. Harris, is reviewing the decision, a spokesman said.