A federal appeals court reversed a lower court ruling Thursday that found California's death penalty was unconstitutional because of excessive delays.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that the lower court was barred from considering a novel constitutional theory that found delays in carrying out executions amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney ruled last year that California's death penalty was an empty promise with unpredictable delays that led to arbitrary and rare executions.
More than 900 people have been sentenced to death in California, but only 13 have been executed since 1978.
[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.
The appeals court said it would not weigh the validity of the claim by a murderer on death row for two decades because the lower court had to apply federal law at the time of his conviction and not a novel constitutional rule.
"Many agree ... that California's capital punishment system is dysfunctional and that the delay between sentencing and execution in California is extraordinary," Justice Susan Graber wrote. "But 'the purpose of federal habeas corpus is to ensure that state convictions comply with the federal law in existence at the time the conviction became final, and not to provide a mechanism for the continuing re-examination of final judgments based upon later emerging legal doctrine."
Prosecutors appealed Carney's ruling in the case of a Los Angeles man sentenced to die for the 1992 rape and murder of his girlfriend's mother.
The California case involves a particularly heinous crime.
Ernest DeWayne Jones, then a paroled rapist, bound, gagged and stabbed Julia Miller 14 times, including a chest wound that penetrated to her spine. Two kitchen knives were sticking out of her neck.
His DNA connected him to the rape, and he admitted stabbing Miller.
Jones, 51, said in his appeal that the state didn't provide a fair and timely review of his case, the delay exceeded that in other states, and death row's conditions constituted torture. He also said the uncertainty of his execution inflicts suffering and, if it ever goes forward, it will serve no legitimate purpose for retribution or deterring other criminals.
Several friend-of-the-court briefs were filed on both sides of the issue.
Two groups representing families of crime victims who oppose capital punishment asked the appeals court to uphold the lower court ruling because they said the death penalty makes grieving and healing harder, it wastes money and is unfairly applied.
A pro-death penalty group said the punishment serves the purpose of retribution.
No executions have been carried out in California since 2006 after another federal judge ordered an overhaul of the state's procedures for lethal injection.
This story has been updated.