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Judge rejects California execution plan

December 16, 2011 | 12:50 pm

A judge threw out California's new lethal-injection protocols because corrections officials failed to consider a one-drug execution method
A judge on Friday threw out California's new lethal-injection protocols, which have been six years in the making, because corrections officials failed to consider a one-drug execution method now in practice in other death penalty states.

The action by Marin County Superior Court Judge Faye D'Opal sends the state back to square one in redrafting procedures for lethal-injection executions. The death penalty has been on hold for six years in California after a federal court ruling deemed the previously used three-drug method unconstitutional because it might inflict pain amounting to cruel and unusual punishment.

D'Opal said in her 22-page ruling that the state's failure to consider replacing the former execution practice with a single-injection method violated state law and ignored the courts' and public criticism of the previous protocols.

The de facto moratorium on executions imposed by U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel in February 2006, when he halted the scheduled lethal-injection execution of convicted murderer Michael A. Morales, has remained in place despite the state's revision of the procedures to address Fogel's concerns. Attorneys for Morales and other condemned inmates have made additional challenges to the new execution protocols, and Fogel left the bench earlier this year to head a judicial academic center in Washington.

D'Opal's ruling, though expected to be appealed by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, would further stall federal court review of the new protocols and ensure that executions won't resume for years.

CDCR spokeswoman Terry Thornton said corrections officials were reviewing the ruling and had no immediate comment.

Anti-death-penalty activists cheered D'Opal's decision, casting it as a sharp reminder of the billions of dollars being spent on a broken capital punishment system.

“The time has come to replace the death penalty with life in prison with no chance of parole," said Natasha Minsker, an American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California lawyer and campaign manager for a voter initiative to repeal capital punishment. "Any attempt to devise new lethal-injection rules will take an enormous amount of public employee time and cost hundreds of millions of dollars."

A three-year study published earlier this year by a federal judge and a Loyola Law School professor reported that taxpayers have spent $4 billion to carry out 13 executions since capital punishment was reinstated in 1978, and that it costs at least $184 million a year to maintain death row and the capital defense system.

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-- Carol J. Williams

Photo: A ferry passes by San Quentin Prison in 2002. Credit: Eric Risberg / Associated Press

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