On Friday, a number of groups filed legal briefs on behalf of Ernest Jones, the Death Row inmate whose sentence was overturned by Judge Cormac Carney in July. In that ruling, the judge declared California’s death penalty unconstitutional saying the delays caused by the dysfunctional system amount to cruel and unusual punishment.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris appealed that case to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, saying the process provides protections to defendants. The Death Penalty Focus amicus brief rebuts the Attorney General’s argument by demonstrating that many Death Row inmates are denied their right to due process by the delays, dysfunction and mistakes that characterize California’s death penalty system.
And their families suffer with them. During decades-long delays, inmates are more likely to die than have their arguments heard. If they do live long enough for a new trial, their mental health has often deteriorated or the evidence is lost or stale.
It is estimated that for every death sentence, eight family members are profoundly affected. Families of inmates on Death Row deal with guilt, stigma and social isolation that can lead to depression, hopelessness, even suicide. These hidden victims often aren’t able to ever find out if their loved ones are actually innocent.
And as California’s Death Row population rises, the delays grow longer. The current average of 30 years will soon reach 40 and 500 more inmates will die before the courts rule on their cases.
The DPF brief outlines three cases:
Ralph International Thomas. He was granted a new trial due to ineffective counsel 30 years after his death sentence but was unable to benefit because his health deteriorated. He died in custody and his mother had to deal with the guilt of not being able to afford private counsel.
Dennis Lawly. He was a diagnosed schizophrenic who represented himself when he was sentenced to death. Another man later confessed and the murder weapon was found but Mr. Lawly was awaiting a hearing when he died in his cell in San Quentin. His mother blames herself for his deluded defense. She said he wouldn’t have gone to death row if he had a lawyer. She’ll never know if he would have been exonerated.
Jarvis Masters. He was 19 when he was sentenced to 23 years. Although he completed his sentence, he was not released because he received a death sentence in connection with the murder of correctional officer. Another man confessed but Mr. Masters’ appeal is still pending.