LOS ANGELES - A federal US judge ruled Wednesday that the death penalty in California is unconstitutional, mainly because of the dysfunctional system which administers it.
Opponents of capital punishment hailed the ruling by judge Cormac Carney as a landmark decision.
The 29-page ruling overturned the death sentence of Ernest Dewayne Jones, who was given the death penalty 1995 for killing his girlfriend's mother three years earlier.
"Nearly two decades later, Mr. Jones remains on California's death row, awaiting his execution, but with complete uncertainty as to when, or even whether, it will ever come," the judge wrote.
Jones was not alone, he said: since 1978, when the current death penalty system was adopted by California voters, over 900 people have been sentenced to death for their crimes, but only 13 executed.
"For the rest the dysfunctional administration of California's death penalty system has resulted, and will continue to result, in an inordinate and unpredictable period of delay preceding their actual execution.
"Indeed, for most, systemic delay has made their execution so unlikely that the death sentence carefully and deliberately imposed by the jury has been quietly transformed into one no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: life in prison, with the remote possibility of death." He added: "As for the random few for whom execution does become a reality, they will have languished for so long on death row that their execution will serve no retributive or deterrent purpose and will be arbitrary." "Such a system .. is unconstitutional," he said.
Diann Rust-Tierney, head of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, welcomed the ruling.
"This is really significant given that the dealt penalty in the US is coming under increasing scrutiny," she said.
"In California, the reality is that the system is so dysfunctional that people on death row are being submitted to torture.
She said it was all the more important given that Carney is a conservative judge, nominated by former president George W. Bush, who was not opposed to the death penalty.
She said it was part of a growing consensus against the death penalty in the United States, where six states have abolished it since 2004, and a moratorium has been imposed by the governor of Oklahoma.
The Oklahoma suspension was decided after the botched April 29 execution of a death row inmate, who appeared to suffer at length, dying only 43 minutes after being given a lethal drug cocktail.