Last month, a federal judge in Los Angeles declared California’s death penalty is unconstitutional. Despite what you may hear from advocates against the death penalty though, defense attorney Peter M. Liss believes this ruling won’t actually change the legal system in the state very much for a variety of reasons.
California’s Death Penalty is Unconstitutional (for Now)
It is important to recognize that U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney did not rule that the death penalty itself is against the law. What he declared is that California’s death penalty is unconstitutional the way it currently operates -notably how long inmates must wait in prison before they are executed. Calling the system “dysfunctional” and beyond repair, Carney explained that California’s death penalty is unconstitutional because it ultimately means “life in prison, with the remote possibility of death.”
Few People are Actually Executed
The state hasn’t actually executed anyone since 2006. Even before that, only 13 people were executed since 1978, despite the fact that 900 people have received the death penalty. The judge went on to explain even those 13 people who were executed waited so long for the sentence that the punishment was ultimately meaningless. As a result, he ruled that the death penalty violates the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
What Does This Ruling Mean?
So what does this decision mean for those who commit a crime punishable by the death penalty and those who already received the sentence? Attorney Peter M. Liss argues that it won’t change much for a few reasons. First, the case will almost certainly be appealed and will likely be settled in the Supreme Court before any final decision is made. Even if the state temporarily bans death penalty sentences while the case is being appealed, the 748 people already on Death Row will remain there.
Since Judge Carney said California’s death penalty is unconstitutional due to the system itself, not the sentence, it is possible that the U.S. Supreme Court will agree. In this case, California may choose to not eliminate the sentence, but instead change the way the death penalty is handled -speeding up the appeals process for those who receive the sentence so the punishment can be enacted more quickly. Ultimately, this would just mean more Death Row inmates would be executed although the same number of people would presumably receive the death penalty.
What Happens if it is Unconstitutional?
If the Supreme Court ultimately rules California’s death penalty is unconstitutional (or if the state opts to end it), the sentence will no longer be given out and those who have already been sentenced to execution will have their sentence converted to life in prison. Given that so few people have been executed in the last 25 years and that no one has been executed in almost a decade, this still won’t be a drastic change to those whose sentence is commuted.
If you are charged with a crime punishable by sentence of death, the most important thing you can do is call a top criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. Peter M. Liss offers a 24/7 answering service so you can speak with someone any time of day. If you are accused of a crime, call (760) 643-4050 to schedule a free initial consultation.
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