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New California death penalty rules debated

Go inside San Quentin’s death row

About 750 condemned inmates are living out their lives on death row at San Quentin State Prison, California's oldest state prison which opened in 1852.
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About 750 condemned inmates are living out their lives on death row at San Quentin State Prison, California's oldest state prison which opened in 1852.

California’s death penalty took center stage Friday as officials held a public hearing on proposed new rules that would allow the state to resume executions using a single drug in its lethal injections.

Crime victim advocates, civil libertarians, lawyers, priests and others took turns in a state health services department auditorium debating the morality and legality of the death penalty and, at times, addressing the proposed regulations the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is proposing.

“We cannot overcome crime simply by executing criminals,” George Horan, a Catholic priest from Los Angeles, told a room of about 50 spectators.

Horan, who said he was speaking on behalf of California’s Catholic bishops, decried the fact that spiritual advisers who attended to condemned inmates must leave three hours before an execution is carried out, and that witnesses are brought in to watch executions.

“To me, it just seems insane that we invite people to witness executions,” Horan said. “Gang members don’t do that.”

Pro-death-penalty speakers decried delays in the use of capital punishment, noting that California has gone a decade without executing an inmate.

Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, which helped force CDCR to draw up the new regulations through a lawsuit, said the process of obtaining drugs and executing inmates with injections is not complicated, adding that “veterinarians do it every day in America.”

Friday’s public hearing attracted a much smaller crowd than the last time the department proposed new execution rules in 2009, when 100 speakers and dozens of others turned out for an emotional session. Twenty people signed up to speak Friday and although the hearing was set to last until 3 p.m. – five hours – they ran out of speakers around 11:30 a.m.

About 12,000 individuals submitted written comments.

Originally, Friday was to be the deadline for submitting public comments about the proposed rule changes.

But a lawsuit filed in November by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California extended that period to Feb. 22.

The ACLU contends the department is withholding 79,000 pages of documents about lethal injection that it is seeking in the suit.

The hearing was scheduled in November after corrections officials published plans for a new lethal injection method that uses a single drug – a 7.5-gram dose of one of four barbiturate drugs that replaces the old, three-drug cocktail used to execute inmates.

The proposed change comes after officials nationwide found themselves facing a shortage of the drugs used in the old three-drug system because manufacturers either stopped making them or refused to provide them for executions, or because of legal challenges over the three-drug method.

The new protocols allow for corrections officials to use one of four drugs: amobarbital, pentobarbital, secobarbital or thiopental.

Lethal injections were used to put inmates to death at San Quentin State Prison 11 times from 1996 through Jan. 17, 2006, but no executions have taken place since then because of legal challenges.

The state’s regulations estimate the cost of a scheduled execution as $186,886, including $85,200 in staff training, $97,492 to contract with law enforcement to provide crowd control near San Quentin and about $4,200 to purchase the drug.

Death penalty advocates have pushed for the new, single-drug method to help kick-start the use of executions in California, and Friday’s hearing is part of the regulatory process required by the state before the new method can officially be adopted.

In addition to comments Friday and written comments submitted by the public since November, officials also may consider input from condemned inmates, who all were given copies of the proposed change.

The state’s Office of Administrative Law must give final approval to the new method, and death penalty advocates say there are at least 17 inmates among the 746 on death row whose appeals have been exhausted and who can be put to death.

But any effort to resume executions will face new legal challenges, and advocates who oppose and support the death penalty are circulating petitions to put competing initiatives on the November ballot that would allow voters to decide whether California should keep the death penalty.

Sam Stanton: 916-321-1091, @StantonSam

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