07/17/2014 11:56 am ET Updated Sep 16, 2014

California Moving Toward the Age of Enlightenment on Capital Punishment

United States District Court Judge Cormac Carney's recent ruling on California's death penalty validated what those in opposition have known for decades, it is unconstitutional, violating the 8th Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

The arbitrary implementation and delay of California's death penalty system led Carney to opine that it was a sentence that "no rational jury or legislature could impose: life in prison, with the remote possibility of death."

What was once unimaginable is methodically making its way toward mainstream orthodoxy. There has not been an execution in California since 2006, which has provided ample time to lessen the cacophony that support for capital punishment depends.

Since 1978, of the more than 900 individuals who have received the death sentence, California has executed 13. Roughly 40 percent of California's 748 death row inmates have served at least 19 years.

Death penalty advocates have responded by calling for a reduction in the appeals process, which diminishes due process and increases the likelihood of executing an innocent person.

Whenever capital punishment is placed under the light of judicious scrutiny it is seen for what it is, a barbaric emotion-based policy that is unable to deliver on any of its promises.

For several decades the death penalty served as the tough-on-crime litmus test. It was nearly impossible for anyone to win statewide office in California without unbridled allegiance.
It was widely accepted that the death penalty saved lives, was a deterrent, cost effective, and provided the victims' surviving family members closure.

Studies claiming that executions saves lives typically use a mathematical formula to conclude that for every execution three to 18 murders are prevented fail to show how life without the possibility of parole would be any less effective. Myriad reports indicate capital punishment is more expensive than life without parole.

As for it being a tool that brings closure, former Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti, back in 2011 wrote:

"Many of these victims were happy when my office sought the death penalty, and if the jury returned a death verdict, a result that never came quickly. It was unusual for a capital case to be resolved within a year from the date of the original crime, two to three years was not uncommon. The living victims of a particular crime might think that a death verdict provides closure, but for most, there was no such closure."

Capital punishment has long been the Teflon issue in California that fed on the toxins of ambitious politicians and public titillation; it was impervious to logic and reason.

So brazen was the collective support for the death penalty little time was given in the public discourse to address a simple question: What error percentage would one maintain comfort in order to institute capital punishment?

Would it not stand to reason if every other human endeavor carries some measure of imperfection, the death penalty would not be immune?

Grappling seriously with a comfortable error percentage would also lead to examining the death penalty's unequal application, based in particular on one's economic status. In this context, taxpayers of California assumed the role of ancient Rome symbolically gesturing a thumbs up or down as to who is worthy of death.

The specific case for which Carney issued his ruling is expected to be appealed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

But in the words of Bob Dylan, "the times they are a changin!" Carney's ruling raises an additional question: how strong is the public mood to maintain a system that beyond appealing to the primordial thirst for revenge has been ineffective by every measure it set?

Carney's decision could create a ripple effect for similar arguments to be made in death penalty appeals nationwide.

Hopefully California, and the rest of the nation, will reach the age of enlightenment by joining the fraternity of countries like Angola, Mozambique, and Rwanda that see the death penalty for what it is -- an abject failure.