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Federal Appeals Court Upholds California's Deliberative Death Penalty Process

California's death row at San Quentin State Prison.
Eric Risberg
California's death row at San Quentin State Prison.

A federal appeals court has upheld California's deliberative death penalty, which keeps prisoners on death row for decades.

Last year, a federal judge ruled that the long and dysfunctional process violated the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

As we reported at the time:

"[U.S. District Judge Cormac] Carney noted that the death penalty has been imposed more than 900 times since 1978, but only 13 of those prisoners have been executed.

"Carney, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, wrote that Jones was far from alone in waiting decades to find out when and whether he would be put to death.

"Such uncertainty and systemic delays are unconstitutional, he decided. Carney wrote that 'the random few' who are put to death wait so long to face execution that capital punishment serves 'no retributive or deterrent purpose.

" 'No rational person can question that the execution of an individual carries with it the solemn obligation of the government to ensure that the punishment is not arbitrarily imposed and that it furthers the interests of society,' Carney wrote."

Two of the three judges on the panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals called that constitutional interpretation "novel," and reversed the judgment.

"Many agree with Petitioner that California's capital punishment system is dysfunctional and that the delay between sentencing and execution in California is extraordinary," the judges wrote.

However, they added, the idea that the delay has turned sentences from "one of death to one of grave uncertainty and torture" is not "supported by logic."

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Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.