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Death row inmates sentenced in Sacramento region have waited an average of 21 years

California death penalty: justice or debacle?

Legislative hearings on 2016 two capital punishment ballot measures featured former M*A*S*H star Mike Farrell against past NFL player and crime victim Kermit Alexander. Warning: Explicit language in the testimony. Video courtesy of the California
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Legislative hearings on 2016 two capital punishment ballot measures featured former M*A*S*H star Mike Farrell against past NFL player and crime victim Kermit Alexander. Warning: Explicit language in the testimony. Video courtesy of the California

While the state of Arkansas made news earlier this year when it executed four inmates in eight days, California has not seen an execution since 2006, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Of the 123 deaths of inmates who were on California’s death row since 1978, just 15 were from execution, according to data from CDCR. A majority – 60 percent – died of natural causes, while another 20 percent committed suicide.

On average, inmates who were sentenced in the Sacramento region have waited on death row for 21 years, according to data from CDCR. Sixty-six percent of them have waited for more than 20 years. While two inmates were condemned to death just three years ago, one – Joe Johnson – has been waiting for 36 years.

Johnson has been on death row since 1981. He was originally sentenced for beating a teacher, Aldo Cavallo, to death during a burglary in Sonoma County. William Proctor, who has waited since 1983 and is the second longest-serving inmate tried in the Sacramento region, was condemned after raping and killing a teacher, Bonita Stendal, in Shasta County.

These long waiting periods have resulted in a death row population that is significantly older than the general population, according to data from CDCR. Over 60 percent of the inmates sentenced in the Sacramento region are at least 60 years old, and over 90 percent are at least 50 years old.

So why has California stalled on executions? Since 2006, there have been continuous legal challenges to the process, said Terry Thornton, deputy press secretary for the corrections department.

When condemned inmate Michael Morales sued the department claiming that California’s lethal injection procedures would cause extreme pain, violating the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, the U.S. District Court ruled in his favor. Specifically, Morales’ team had questioned the effectiveness of CDCR’s administration of sodium thiopental, which is supposed to sedate the inmate and is one of three drugs used in the lethal injection procedure.

The court gave corrections the option to either have an anesthesiologist present for Morales’ execution or use a single-drug procedure. Morales’ execution has been stayed indefinitely because CDCR opted to have an anesthesiologist but was unable to find one willing to participate before the deadline.

CDCR also submitted revisions to its protocol to improve areas such as training of its execution team and record-keeping, but it was not enough. In Morales v. Tilton, the Marin Superior Court ruled that the protocol must be submitted as a regulation in compliance with the Administrative Procedure Act, a statute outlining how state agencies should establish regulations, even though lethal injection procedures previously had not been required to comply with the act.

After a lengthy process, CDCR finally submitted a protocol that the Office of Administrative Law accepted in 2010 and deemed in compliance with the act. However, the Marin Superior Court ruled that the way the protocol was developed actually did not comply with the act, according to Sims v. CDCR. Since then, CDCR has not been able to carry out any executions.

But throughout these legal challenges, the California electorate has consistently voted in favor of the death penalty. In 2012, they voted against Proposition 34, which would have repealed the death penalty for people convicted of murder. Similarly, in 2016, they voted against Proposition 62, which would have replaced the death penalty with life imprisonment, while voting for Proposition 66, which would expedite executions.

Proposition 66, however, is also being challenged in court. Among a few other changes, the proposition would limit appeals processes to five years and exempt execution procedures from the Administrative Procedure Act, according to California’s voter information guide. Opponents of the ballot claim that time limits on appeals are unconstitutional and would result in the legal process being unfairly rushed to meet these deadlines, according to Ballotpedia. The case is expected to be decided in August.

A group of family members of murder victims have also worked to speed up the execution process. Represented by Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the California Justice Legal Foundation and a co-author of Proposition 66, they sued CDCR in 2014 for its delays in developing a new protocol, Scheidegger said. These delays have prevented the families from fully achieving justice, they said.

In response, CDCR agreed to develop a single-drug procedure and is fielding public comments for regulations submitted last month.

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