A federal judge has ruled that the death penalty in California is unconstitutional, citing that lengthy and unpredictable delays have resulted in an arbitrary and unfair capital punishment system

Opponents of capital punishment hailed Wednesday’s ruling by US District Court judge Cormac Carney as a landmark decision.

The ruling has overturned the death sentence of Ernest Dewayne Jones who was condemned in 1994 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 in his ruling, calling the death penalty an empty promise that violates the Constitution's protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

This is really significant given that the death penalty in the US is coming under increasing scrutiny.

Diann Rust-Tierney, head of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

"Submitted to torture"

Since the adopton of capital punishment by California voters in 1978, more than 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," Carney said.

"Indeed, for most, systemic delay has made their execution so unlikely that the death sentence... has been quietly transformed into one no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: life in prison, with the remote possibility of death."

"Such a system .. is unconstitutional," he said.

The ruling was welcomed by Diann Rust-Tierney, head of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

"This is really significant given that the death 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."

The ruling, however, is not without critics.

Republican state Sen. Jim Nielsen, former chairman of the California Board of Prison Terms, issued a statement saying, "The current system needs improvement, but to completely get rid of the death penalty is unconscionable for victims and their families and society."

Wednesday's ruling is is 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.