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State to propose execution revisions

Officials vow to release a report in May. But they want to keep secret how the results were reached.

January 17, 2007|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

In response to a scathing opinion from a San Jose federal judge, California officials said Tuesday that they would issue a report by May 15 outlining revisions they propose for the state's lethal injection executions.

State authorities said their written report would address "deficiencies" identified in December by U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel, who concluded that current procedures create an unnecessary risk that condemned inmates will suffer an unconstitutional level of pain.

However, a new controversy arose as state officials announced that they want to keep the process of how they arrive at their revisions secret.

In his Dec. 15 ruling, Fogel said the state's system "is broken, but ... can be fixed."

He listed a number of serious problems with how the death penalty is implemented in California, including poorly trained staff; unreliable record-keeping involving drugs used in the process; improper mixing, preparation and administration of drugs; and overcrowded conditions in the death chamber at San Quentin State Prison.

Three days later, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued a statement saying he had directed state officials to fix the problems "to ensure the death penalty procedure is constitutional."

Both the governor's office and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation submitted legal papers Tuesday to Fogel.

The governor's filing stressed he had already taken steps toward a better screening program for selecting execution team members, toward a new training program and toward better record-keeping and improved facilities at San Quentin.

However, Schwarzenegger's filing, signed by Deputy Atty. Gen. Steven M. Gevercer, also asked the judge to issue a protective order shielding the state's deliberations from public view.

Gevercer said that "experts, consultants, professionals and other public officials should feel comfortable discussing alternatives, options and possibilities without fear that they will be subpoenaed or deposed simply due to their participation in pre-decisional policymaking." He asked the judge to hold a hearing on his request for a protective order on or before Feb. 16.

Ginger Anders, a lawyer for condemned inmate Michael Morales, whose challenge to the lethal injection procedure led to the Fogel's ruling, said Morales' legal team was troubled by the state's desire to act "in complete secrecy, particularly in light of its previous refusal to make meaningful improvements in the execution process and its attempts to shield that process from discovery."

Anders noted that Florida Gov. Jeb Bush recently called for a public reexamination of how the state conducts executions. "Unlike Gov. Bush ... who's recognized that the process of improving the execution procedure should be transparent and open, California has continually refused to acknowledge that the manner in which it carries out executions is a matter of great public concern," she said.

Morales has been on death row since 1983 for the murder of Terri Winchell, a Lodi teenager. Executions have been halted in California since February, when Morales got a stay amid questions about lethal injection.


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