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State opens comment period on lethal injection procedures

Two-month period will be used to gather views on the execution process as a step toward resuming the death penalty.

May 02, 2009|Carol J. Williams

State officials launched a two-month forum Friday for public comment on revised lethal injection procedures in a step toward resuming executions as early as next year.

But the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation warned in posting the new protocols that it will weigh comments only on the execution process, not on the legality or morality of the death penalty.

Executions in California have been on hold for more than three years while authorities reviewed and revised the three-drug execution sequence that first anesthetizes the prisoner, then administers a paralyzing agent and finally induces cardiac arrest with potassium chloride.

U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel issued a ruling that effectively stayed the execution of convicted murder Michael A. Morales in February 2006 after hearing reports that some of the 13 executions carried out in California since 1976 may have involved unconstitutional pain and suffering. Review of those executions raised doubts that the first drug, a powerful barbiturate, rendered the condemned men unconscious, while the second injection would have left them unable to express the extreme pain inflicted by the heart-stopping agent.

A task force created by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2007 redrafted execution procedures to ensure proper administration of the drugs and to improve staff training.

The new procedures address the specific deficiencies noted by Fogel "to ensure that the condemned inmate is rendered unconscious and remains unconscious during the lethal injection process" and that the procedure "will result in the dignified end of life for the condemned inmate."

But before Fogel could review the changes, Morales' attorneys brought another challenge in Marin County, where San Quentin is located, arguing that the new protocols were illegal because the state had bypassed a statutory period for public comment.

A Marin County judge and a state appeals panel agreed, prompting state officials who want executions resumed to concede the procedural point and post the protocols rather than spend more time fighting in court.

Californians have until June 30 to send their written views on the procedures to the corrections department or air them during a six-hour public hearing in Sacramento on the final day of the comment period.

"Comments received that are not related specifically to the process itself as presented in the text, such as the constitutionality, legality, or morality of the death penalty itself, will not receive a specific response from the department," state officials noted as they initiated the comment period.

If further revisions are deemed necessary after review of the public comments, it could be at least two months before the protocols are formally adopted and the Marin County case is closed.

Fogel would then hold hearings to determine whether the new protocols remove the possibility of lethal injection resulting in cruel and unusual punishment, as prohibited by the 8th Amendment.


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