San Quentin State Prison's new warden wants to recruit a new execution… (Eric Risberg / Associated…)
California officials have backed off a drive to resume executions this year, asking a federal judge to delay until at least January his review of revised lethal injection procedures.
The delay means that the state will have gone at least six years without executing any condemned prisoners, who now number 713.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation requested more time because San Quentin State Prison's new warden, Michael Martel, wants to recruit a new execution team to replace the one that was assembled and trained last year, according to court documents.
U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel expressed frustration that the state has taken so long to fix lethal injection procedures, which he concluded might have subjected inmates to intense pain in violation of the Constitution's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. He made that ruling in December 2006 after putting executions on hold 10 months earlier.
"When the public looks at this and they say, 'Well, why aren't there any executions?' all they know is that it's taking five years to get to closure in this case," Fogel told attorneys for the state and the prisoners, according to a court transcript made public this week.
The development comes on the heels of Gov. Jerry Brown's decision last week to scrap construction of a new $356-million death row facility. California faces another potential roadblock from looming legal challenges to the state's acquisition of sodium thiopental, the key execution drug, which is no longer made in the U.S. and has to be obtained from foreign producers.
Lawyers for the state said it was not feasible to schedule executions this year, according to a transcript of the meeting with Fogel in his chambers Friday. Given the time it will take to put together a new execution team, train the 20-plus members and provide documentation of their qualifications to lawyers for condemned inmates, the execution procedures won't be ready for review and potential approval until at least January, the judge noted.
Corrections officials have declined to say why Martel wants to change the execution team that was deemed ready in September, when the state was prepared to execute rapist-murderer Albert Greenwood Brown. The execution was called off at the last minute because Fogel had not yet assessed whether revisions to the lethal injection procedure fully addressed his concerns about their meeting constitutional standards.
San Quentin public information officer Sam Robinson said he wasn't authorized to comment when asked what prompted Martel to undertake the time-consuming replacement of the execution team.
"He's the warden. It's his choice," said Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the corrections department.
Although other death penalty states have scaled back the number of capital charges sought in murder trials, partly out of concern for the soaring costs of maintaining capital punishment, California has bucked the national trend and continued adding to its teeming death row, the nation's largest, experts said.
Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which supports capital punishment, said his organization wasn't opposed to the decision to spare California the expense of a new condemned inmate facility but expressed impatience with the persistent legal maneuverings blocking executions.
"What is needed is political leadership" to invoke the will of the people in carrying out the death sentences already issued, Scheidegger said, suggesting a lack of enthusiasm for capital punishment in the state government hierarchy.
Brown and Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris have both said they are personally opposed to the death penalty but would respect the public's majority support for the sentencing option.
David Senior, an attorney for death row inmate Michael A. Morales, said the latest developments in the state's execution plans reflect a more cautious approach in the exercise of capital punishment by Brown's administration, compared to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who vigorously pushed for resuming executions.
Fogel also asked lawyers for death row inmates who have exhausted their appeals whether they expected further delays due to concerns about the origin and effectiveness of sodium thiopental.
The attorneys said they hadn't yet formally challenged the state on the drugs issue but indicated it might be part of their appeals strategy later.
California has executed 13 men since capital punishment was reinstated in 1978, compared with 78 deaths during that time from natural causes, suicide or inmate-on-inmate violence.
Twenty-nine of those deaths have occurred since the last execution, that of Clarence Ray Allen in January 2006.
UC Santa Cruz professor Craig Haney, who has tracked public attitudes about the death penalty for 30 years, said Brown's decision to scuttle new death row construction and the corrections department's slowed efforts to resume executions are "examples of the increasing signs that the death penalty's days are numbered in the United States."
"I can't say that it will be next week or next month or next year, but the trends have now become too unmistakably clear to ignore," said Haney, who deems the death penalty economically wasteful and vulnerable to error.
He said he doubted that Brown has any "grand design" to commute California death sentences to life without the possibility of parole but might be on a path to preparing voters for an inevitable move in that direction.