What’s an Acceptable Error Rate in Death Penalty Distributions? And Some Other Thoughts on The Jones Decision

(Dan Markel) The indispensable Doug “not that subway fugitive” Berman alerted me earlier today to the Jones v. Chappell opinion by the federal judge in California who struck down the Cal death penalty on the grounds that the insane amounts of delay between sentence and execution are violative of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments. (I have registered my retributivist and constitutional doubts about the death penalty before, but I haven’t been too enamored of the argument that wins the day in this case. Whether I revise my views, well, anything’s possible. I am after all getting older.)

Having worked my way through the opinion by Judge Cormac Carney (a GWB appointee), I imagine the outcome won’t stand on appeal to SCOTUS should it get there. That said, with Justice Kennedy as the swing vote deciding on California issues, you never know for sure. Moreover, Justice Breyer has in the past voiced concern about foot-dragging death penalty delays.

Regardless of when/if it gets struck down, the Carney opinion notes the following about error rates, which I found to be of profound interest. Specifically:

“Of the 748 inmates currently on California’s Death Row, more than 40 percent, including Mr. Jones, have been there longer than 19 years.”

“Of the 511 individuals sentenced to death between 1978 and 1997, 79 died of natural causes, suicide, 
or causes other than execution by the State of California.”

“For those that survive the extraordinary wait for their challenge to be both heard and decided by the federal courts, there is a substantial chance that their death sentence will be vacated. As of June 2014, only 81 of the 511 individuals sentenced to death between 1978 and 1997 had completed the post-conviction review process. Of them, 32 were denied relief by both the state and federal courts—13 were executed, 17 are currently awaiting execution, and two died of natural causes before the State acted to execute them. The other 49—or 60 percent of all inmates whose habeas claims have been finally evaluated by the federal courts—were each granted relief from the death sentence by the federal courts.”  But of those 49, the “State resentenced 10 of these individuals to death, thus starting anew the post-sentencing appeal process on the renewed sentences, though two have since died while on post-conviction review for the second time.” 

A few points here.

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