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California says it won't resume executions this year

May 3, 2011 |  1:29 pm


California corrections officials have put off until at least next year any attempt to resume executions among the 713 condemned inmates on death row, according to court documents.

The request by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to delay review of newly revised lethal-injection protocols until January at the earliest follows a decision last week by Gov. Jerry Brown to scrap plans to build a new death row facility at San Quentin State Prison.

The steps have stirred speculation among death-penalty opponents that California might be drawn into the national trend away from seeking new executions.

The most recent postponement was due to San Quentin warden Michael Martel's decision to replace the execution team that had been assembled and trained last year. That team had been ready to carry out executions last September. Corrections officials have declined to say why Martel is assembling a new execution team.

The internal corrections department revisions were disclosed during a meeting of the department's lawyers last week with U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel. The San Jose judge overseeing a federal case that has halted executions for the last five years expressed frustration with the protracted process and concern that the public doesn't understand why it has taken so long to correct flaws in the execution procedures.

UC Santa Cruz professor Craig Haney, who opposes capital punishment and has tracked public attitudes on the death penalty for 30 years, said Brown's decision to scuttle new death row construction to save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, and the corrections department's slowing down of its 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," Haney said, adding that he doubted Brown has any "grand design" to commute California death sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole but that the governor might be on a path to preparing voters for an inevitable move to end them.

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 the main drug used in lethal injection, sodium thiopental, which the state now imports because the sole U.S. manufacturer has ceased production. The attorneys said they hadn't yet formally challenged the state on the drug issue but indicated it might be part of their appeals strategy later.

An attorney for death row inmate Michael A. Morales, whose February 2006 execution was called off by Fogel over concerns that the former procedures could inflict unconstitutional pain, said the latest delays reflect a more cautious approach in the exercise of capital punishment by Brown's administration.

"It appears that the state is attempting to be diligent in their obligations under the law, which would be in stark departure from what was the case with Governor [Arnold] Schwarzenegger," said David Senior, one of Morales' attorneys.


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-- Carol J. Williams

 Photo: California's death row. Credit: Associated Press