California's Death Penalty Ruling "Historic": Former DA

By Ted Chen and Jason Kandel
|  Wednesday, Jul 16, 2014  |  Updated 7:55 PM PDT
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In a historic decision Monday, a federal judge declared California's death penalty unconstitutional. Ted Chen reports for NBC4 News at 5 p.m. from Brentwood Wednesday, July 16, 2014.

Ted Chen, Scott Meadows

In a historic decision Monday, a federal judge declared California's death penalty unconstitutional. Ted Chen reports for NBC4 News at 5 p.m. from Brentwood Wednesday, July 16, 2014.

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A watershed ruling on Wednesday in which a federal judge ruled California's death penalty unconstitutional will have no immediate effect on Alejandro Avila, the convicted killer of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, whose death sentence was upheld just two weeks ago by the California Supreme Court.

But the ruling overturns the death sentence of Ernest Jones, who was convicted of rape and murder in Orange County in 1995.

"It's a historic decision," said Gil Garcetti, a former Los Angeles County District Attorney. "There has not been one federal court in the entire country that has made this kind of ruling on a particular state death penalty."

Judge Cormac Carney of Santa Ana ruled that California's death penalty is a "system in which arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed."

He criticized the system's long delays.

Many have been on death row for nearly 20 years.

Of the 900 convicted murderers sentenced to death since 1978, he said only 13 have been executed, and 39 have had their sentences overturned.

Executions have been on hold since 2006 based on flaws in the state's lethal injection procedures.

Garcetti, who had a change of heart on the death penalty, says it is not effective at what it aims to do.

"There's no proof its a deterrent," he said. "So what is it? It's retribution. Can we afford it when we're laying off police officers and teachers and firefighters?"

Experts such as Garcetti say there's now a powerful precedent for the 748 inmates now on death row to go back to court to try to have their executions overturned.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris says she has not yet decided whether to appeal.

If the ruling is upheld by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, experts say that would overturn the death penalty in California. But the final word would then go to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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