California's One-Drug Execution Method Rejected

by | October 10, 2017

By Bob Egelko

Proposed rules for single-drug executions in California were rejected Monday by a state legal agency, whose decision may soon be nullified by an initiative approved by state voters last November.

State prison officials have been trying to rewrite their regulations since a federal judge halted implementation of California's death penalty in 2006, finding flaws in staff training and procedures that created the risk of a prolonged and agonizing execution. The state has nearly 750 inmates on Death Row, and courts have rejected final appeals on the convictions and sentences of at least 18 of those inmates.

With lethal drugs increasingly scarce, Gov. Jerry Brown's administration settled a lawsuit by murder victims' families by switching from the previous three-drug executions to a single dose of a powerful barbiturate. Prison officials drafted procedures to use one of two possible drugs, to be obtained from private pharmacies. They received thousands of public comments, mostly critical, and then submitted them to the state office that reviews new state regulations for their compliance with the law.

On Monday, the Office of Administrative Law vetoed the procedures for the second time, issuing a brief notice that the prison department "did not resolve all necessity and clarity issues." The office said it would explain its reasoning within a week.

Meanwhile, however, 51 percent of the state's voters in November approved Proposition 66, a measure designed to speed up executions, while rejecting a competing initiative to abolish the death penalty. The state Supreme Court upheld some provisions of Prop. 66 in August, including one that eliminates the need for regulatory review of one-drug executions.

Opponents of the measure have asked for a rehearing, and the court has delayed implementation until at least Nov. 22 while it considers the request. But if the ruling stands, Monday's action will have no effect.

The dispute over execution procedures would then move to federal court, where lawyers for the condemned prisoners would renew their arguments against California's proposed injection procedures..

"The whole thing is stupid," death penalty supporter Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation and an author of Prop. 66, said of the regulatory review process. He said the U.S. Supreme Court has approved similar execution drugs and procedures in other states.

On the other side, David Crawford of the anti-capital punishment group Death Penalty Focus endorsed the state office's decision.

"We've known all along that (the proposed procedure) was deeply problematic, and that it increased the risk of botched executions and secret drug deals like we've seen in other states," Crawford said. "We're coming up on a year since the election and nothing has changed, except that we've wasted another $150 million" in maintaining Death Row.

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