Release Date:  November 12, 2015
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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U.S. COURT OF APPEALS REINSTATES CALIFORNIA DEATH PENALTY

Today the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a decision issued last year that had declared California's death penalty unconstitutional due to excessive delay.

Ernest Jones raped and murdered his girlfriend's mother, and in 1995 a jury unanimously decided that death was the appropriate punishment. That judgment was affirmed by the California Supreme Court in 2003, but the case has dragged on for another 12 years in secondary reviews, called habeas corpus.

Advocates for crime victims and law enforcement groups have for many years decried the excessive delay. However, a key congressional reform remains mired in litigation, and the California Legislature has killed needed reforms in committee repeatedly over the years.

In July of last year, Federal District Judge Cormac Carney decided that the excessive delays violate the rights of the defendant, despite the fact that defendants are the ones filing the actions and law enforcement regularly opposes the delay. Similar arguments have been made from time to time over the years, but courts have uniformly rejected them.

In 1989, the United States Supreme Court decided that federal courts sitting in habeas corpus could not make up new rules of constitutional law and impose them retroactively on the states. This decision in the case of Teague v. Lane was made at the suggestion of the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a victims' rights advocacy group.

In today's decision in Jones v. Davis, the majority of the three-judge panel decided that Judge Carney's decision violated the Teague rule. Judge Susan Graber wrote for the majority, "Because we conclude that Petitioner's claim asks us to apply a novel constitutional rule, we must deny the claim as barred by Teague. Accordingly, we reverse the district court's judgment granting relief." Judge Johnnie Rawlinson joined this opinion.

Judge Paul Watford concurred separately on the ground that Judge Carney's ruling violated a different rule, that state prisoners must take their claims to the state courts first before turning to the federal courts.

"This is a major victory for justice in California," said CJLF Legal Director Kent Scheidegger, who filed a "friend of the court" brief for the foundation in the case. "The lower court's decision was wrong in every aspect. With this barrier out of the way we can continue with the work of reinstating justice in our state."

CJLF Legal Director Kent Scheidegger is available for further comment at (916) 446-0345.
CJLF's brief in the case is available at: http://www.cjlf.org/briefs/JonesE.pdf
The Ninth Circuit's decision is available at:
http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2015/11/12/14-56373.pdf