Last year, District Court Judge Cormac J. Carney vacated the 1995 death sentence of Ernest D. Jones, who petitioned the court to determine whether his death sentence was valid.
Carney wrote: "Allowing this system to continue to threaten Mr. Jones with the slight possibility of death, almost a generation after he was first sentenced, violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. "
Judge Susan P. Graber, who wrote the opinion for the three-judge appeals panel, said Jones' legal team had asked the court to consider what would be a new constitutional rule in a habeas corpus case (ones that determine whether imprisonment is valid). Most are barred by a 1989 ruling in Teague v. Lane, she wrote.
She said the decision was based on the legal maneuvers in the case, not whether the many years death penalty cases take in the system was unconstitutional.
"Many agree with petitioner that California's capital punishment system is dysfunctional and that the delay between sentencing and execution in California is extraordinary," she wrote.
"But 'the purpose of federal habeas corpus is to ensure that state convictions comply with the federal law in existence at the time the conviction became final, and not to provide a mechanism for the continuing re-examination of final judgments based upon later emerging legal doctrine,' " she added, quoting a 1990 habeas case
In California, lawyers can appeal the decision of the appeals court
There are 747 people on death row in California. No one has been executed since 2006.
Since 1978, more than 900 people in the state have been sentenced to death row, where inmates spend 23 hours alone in their cells. Of those people, 13 were executed; as of 2014, 94 have died of other causes. Many have been on death row longer than 19 years.
Jones was convicted and sentenced to death 20 years ago for raping and killing his girlfriend's mother, Julia Miller, a 50-year-old defense industry accountant.
During the trial, Jones was portrayed as the product of a broken home with alcoholic parents. An aunt described his childhood as "a living hell." He grew up in poverty, and his parents used drugs in front of the children and battled violently. His mother beat him and his siblings. He developed a drug habit of his own, which included marijuana and cocaine.
The court record indicates Jones spent several years in prison for raping the mother of a previous girlfriend.
The California Supreme Court in 2003 upheld the conviction of Jones on first-degree murder and rape charges.