Capitol Alert

Will California begin executions again under new method?

The phones to stop an execution hang on the wall in the background near the execution chamber of San Quentin State Prison in June 2003.
The phones to stop an execution hang on the wall in the background near the execution chamber of San Quentin State Prison in June 2003. Sacramento Bee file

California prison officials unveiled Friday a new lethal injection method that for the first time in state history calls for the use of only one drug to execute inmates, a move designed to jump-start capital punishment after nearly a decade without an execution.

The new method, which still must be the subject of a public comment period and public hearing before the state’s final adoption of it, would establish that any one of four specified barbiturates, in a 7.5 gram dose, could be used in executions. The drugs listed are amobarbital, pentobarbital, secobarbital and thiopental.

Kent Scheidegger, of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, called the development a significant victory for the majority of Californians who support the death penalty, and “particularly for families of murder victims who have been waiting for justice.”

“This sets in motion the process by which we can actually resume executions in California,” he said by phone Friday. “I think it’s going to happen. I am very optimistic.”

The execution method, dubbed a “lethal injection protocol” by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, replaces a three-drug protocol that was used to kill 11 inmates between 1996 and Jan. 17, 2006, when Clarence Ray Allen became the last condemned inmate put to death at San Quentin State Prison.

Since then, legal challenges have kept the state from executing anyone, despite the fact that death penalty advocates say there are at least 17 inmates among the 747 currently on death row who have exhausted their legal appeals and could be executed without further delay.

Corrections officials estimate the costs of a scheduled execution at $186,886.

Don Heller, a Sacramento defense attorney and critic of capital punishment, campaigned three years ago for an unsuccessful effort to abolish the death penalty. He said he views the drug issue as a smaller piece in the broader debate and predicts it will not lead to a marked rise in state executions.

“The system is broken and society will be a lot better without capital punishment because it just doesn’t work,” Heller said, adding life without parole is a viable alternative to death. “I think that people are tired of just seeing money go down the tubes when there are so many important issues to be dealt with.”

The newest regulations are the latest attempt by the state to resume executions and come as the result of a lawsuit filed last year by the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation on behalf of family members of murder victims.

The foundation reached a settlement with the corrections department in June that called for the creation of a new lethal injection method that could stand up to scrutiny from courts that have blocked past executions over concerns that some drugs cause inmates pain that violates the Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

Meantime, public opinion on the death penalty as punishment for serious crimes is shifting. The Field Poll last year found that support for capital punishment plunged to its lowest point in nearly 50 years. The survey determined that 56 percent of voters favored retaining the death penalty while 34 percent opposed.

From 1981 though the early ’90s, roughly 80 percent of voters said they wanted to keep capital punishment in place.

Filing of the new regulations does not mean executions will resume any time soon, and there still is a chance that they may never occur again in California.

First, the state must allow 75 days of public comment on the new proposed method, which has been posted on the corrections department website and also is being distributed to the state’s prisons and to all condemned inmates.

The state also must hold a public hearing Jan. 22 before California’s Office of Administrative Law can issue final approval.

Even then, new legal challenges could arise to block a planned execution, and efforts already are underway by both death penalty opponents and capital punishment advocates to have voters decide next year whether California should retain the death penalty.

One measure would strike from the Penal Code death as a possible punishment, arguing in a summary that replacing it with life in prison without the possibility of parole would save the state $1 billion in five years “without releasing a single prisoner.” The proposal from Mike Farrell, known for his role in TV’s “M*A*S*H,” is attracting early big-name assistance from Silicon Valley.

Another initiative aiming for the ballot from Kermit Alexander, the retired NFL defensive back whose relatives were murdered in 1984 by a man now on death row, seeks to place responsibility for overseeing expedited death-penalty appeals in the hands of the state Supreme Court and mandate that inmates facing death work and pay restitution to victims’ families.

Voters last rejected a death penalty repeal in 2012. Proposition 34 was defeated by a vote of 52 percent to 48 percent.

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago