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Majority at public hearing oppose California's proposed lethal injection changes

Only two of more than 100 speakers support the resumption of executions once legal challenges are addressed.

July 01, 2009|Carol J. Williams

SACRAMENTO — Corrections officials heard overwhelming condemnation of proposed new lethal injection procedures Tuesday at the first-ever public hearing on execution methods in the state.

Contrary to the solid majority of Californians who in opinion polls expressed support for the death penalty, only two out of more than 100 speakers supported a resumption of death sentences once legal hurdles are cleared.

But the opponents' sentiments are unlikely to be persuasive because the hearing was intended to review specific execution procedures, not the pros and cons of capital punishment, which remains a legal option in the state.

Executions have been on hold since a federal judge raised concerns 3 1/2 years ago that California's three-drug method could inflict cruel and unusual punishment. Their resumption isn't expected in the near future, not because of opposition but because of legal and financial obstacles the state has yet to overcome.

Tuesday's hearing by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation concluded a two-month period for public comment that drew more than 5,000 written opinions, which will be considered before the protocols are adopted, said department spokesman Seth Unger.

Two court cases still stand in the way of executing any of the 682 prisoners on death row, both filed by Michael A. Morales, the convicted murderer whose challenge to the constitutionality of the process brought the de facto suspension in February 2006.

When and if the protocols are approved, in two months at the earliest, the legal reviews are expected to take a year -- and probably longer if opponents are successful in raising other constitutional issues. Condemned prisoners have a right to habeas corpus appeals in federal court, but a lack of funds for lawyers and jammed court calendars grossly delay the cases. It now takes an average of 25 years between conviction and execution.

Despite what was supposed to be a narrow discussion, religious leaders, doctors, lawyers, teachers and family members of murderers and their victims seized the opportunity to rail against "state-sponsored killing" and the $125 million a year spent to maintain a dysfunctional death row.

Opponents rallied by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California capped the eight-hour marathon of three-minute speeches by delivering a symbolic, oversized check for $1 billion to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office -- the amount needed over the next five years to bring executions up to constitutional standards.

Crucifixion, beheading, drawing and quartering, hanging, firing squads, the electric chair and the gas chamber all have had their day as acceptable means of punishing the worst offenders only to be recognized later as barbaric, said retired Oakland engineer Charles Feltman.

Paul J. Kaplan, a San Diego State professor of criminal justice, recalled waking up during surgery, fully conscious but unable to convey his ability to feel pain to the doctor because the paralytic agent in his anesthesia had immobilized him.

"I woke up on the operating table but couldn't breathe or move. I was totally paralyzed but alert and feeling," he said, providing a cautionary tale for the lethal injection procedures that use the same anesthetizing and paralyzing sequence.

"This is nothing more than a costly manicure on the bloody fingers of the state of California," Lyle Grosjean, a minister from Paso Robles, said of the revised execution procedures.

Johanna Westerson, a Swedish human rights lawyer living in San Francisco, urged state officials to "join the civilized nations of the world in abandoning this barbaric practice" and part company with the likes of China, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

"Let's televise these events and show the world what we're doing, like the Taliban," Palo Alto resident Gerard McGuire proposed. "Shine the full light of public knowledge on this event, this state-sanctioned murder."

Former wardens and chaplains from the nation's busiest death houses sent accounts of witnessing executions that have haunted them.

The only speakers in favor of resuming executions, John Mancino and Howard Garber of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Civil Responsibilities Union, blamed the cost of maintaining death row on excessive appeals allowed condemned inmates and vowed to defeat the efforts of activist judges to deprive murder victims' families of justice.

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carol.williams@latimes.com

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