PASADENA, Calif. (CN) - California has not executed anyone in nine years but a killer on death row there since 1995 failed to secure Ninth Circuit relief Thursday.
Ernest Jones received the death penalty in 1995 for the rape and murder of his girlfriend's mother, and his conviction became final in 2003.
In his 2010 petition for federal habeas relief, Jones took issue with the excessive delays between sentencing and execution in California capital cases.
Though a federal judge agreed with Jones that the Golden State's post-conviction system of judicial review amounts to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment, the Ninth Circuit reversed today.
The panel found that Jones' case differs from the typical Lackey claim, so named for the 1997 U.S. Supreme Court case Lackey v. Texas.
"An ordinary Lackey claim focuses on the delay experienced by the petitioner personally, without regard to the fate of others; and it asserts the legal theory that his continued imprisonment on Death Row does not meet the purposes of 'retribution and deterrence,'" Judge Susan Graber wrote for a three-person panel.
Jones' claim, "by contrast, focuses on the delay inherent in the system itself and on the fate of capital prisoners generally, without particular regard to petitioner's personal situation," Graber added.
Graber summed up the case as seeking "a rule that a state's post-sentencing procedures are unconstitutionally 'arbitrary' if they produce long delays resulting in few actual executions and uncertainty as to which prisoners will be executed."
Unfortunately for Jones, however, "we and other courts previously have rejected a foundation of petitioner's proposed rule - that a delay in resolving post-conviction proceedings has constitutional significance."
The U.S. Supreme Court's 1989 decision in Teague v. Lane prohibits such new rules, the panel found.
Though "many agree with petitioner that California's capital punishment system is dysfunctional and that the delay between sentencing and execution in California is extraordinary," Graber said the court cannot assess the merits of his claim because Jones is asking "to apply a novel constitutional rule."
Judge Paul Watford wrote in a separate concurrence that he would reverse on different grounds: that Jones failed to exhaust the remedies available to him in state court.
"Jones's claim remains unexhausted, which precluded the district court from granting him relief on that claim," Watford wrote.
The Department of Justice did not provide new comment on the case. After the lower court had ruled for Jones, however, California Attorney General Kamala Harris had spoke about the state's appeal.
"I am appealing the court's decision because it is not supported by the law, and it undermines important protections that our courts provide to defendants," Harris said. "This flawed ruling requires appellate review."
Jones' attorney did not return a request for comment on Thursday morning.
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