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California unveils new lethal injection execution rules

Corrections officials on Thursday announced new procedures for executing prisoners by lethal injection, beating a May 1 deadline by a day and clearing a major obstacle to resuming capital punishment after a hiatus of more than four years.

The proposed changes in the death chamber procedures are intended to address concerns expressed by a federal judge in 2006 that the state’s previous three-drug formula may have exposed some of the 13 people executed in the last two decades to unconstitutionally "cruel and unusual punishment."

Although the new procedures could get final approval from the state Office of Administrative Law within a month, executions are unlikely to resume soon as state and federal judges must first review the largely minor changes and decide whether they address the constitutional questions and procedural complaints by death penalty opponents. Those reviews are likely to extend at least through the end of the year.

California has 703 inmates on death row, and a handful of capital convicts are making their way to San Quentin State Prison, where the lethal injection chamber is located

Despite having the nation’s largest population of condemned inmates, there hasn’t been an execution in the state since January 2006, when convicted killer Clarence Allen was put to death.

"This is the final step in the rule-making process," said Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that has spent the past year combing through public comments on the proposed revisions. The department was facing a May 1 deadline to finish the reforms.

At least six of the more than 700 inmates on death row have exhausted all appeals and could be scheduled for execution as soon as the legal reviews are completed, said Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation that supports the resumption of executions.

--Carol J. Williams

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