A murderer who spent 26 years on death row has died of natural causes, the 70th condemned prisoner to succumb to old age, suicide or murder compared with 13 executed by the state since capital punishment resumed in 1978, the state reported Thursday.
Albert Cecil Howard, 57, died at a hospital near San Quentin State Prison on Wednesday, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in a statement.
Howard was convicted and sentenced to death a year after the May 25, 1982, murder of 74-year-old Lois Roy Fried of Tulare County.
Executions have been on hold in California since early 2006, when death row inmate Michael A. Morales successfully challenged lethal-injection procedures as cruel and unusual punishment. U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel of San Jose ruled the three-drug sequence unconstitutional after hearing expert testimony that some of those put to death in the state hadn't been fully anesthetized before the final -- and intensely painful -- dose of potassium chloride that induces cardiac arrest.
Corrections officials are expected to approve new procedures soon that would better document the execution steps to ensure the inmate isn't conscious for the fatal last dose.
Once the state approves the revised protocols and a state court challenge is resolved, the procedures will be brought before Fogel for determination of whether they pass constitutional muster.
Executions could resume as soon as next year if the protocols clear the state and federal court hurdles. But further legal challenges have been threatened and pressure is mounting on state officials to take the cost-cutting step of commuting death sentences to life without the possibility of parole, a change estimated to save $1 billion over five years.
There are 680 inmates on death row, where the condemned now spend an average of 25 years while exhausting state and federal appeals.