|San Quentin's brand new execution chamber as seen from press room|
A divided U.S. Supreme Court on Monday reinforced the ability of states to rely on lethal injection to carry out executions, handing down a ruling out of Oklahoma that unlocks California's long dormant effort to revive the death penalty in this state.
The Supreme Court's decision triggers what promises to be a tangled, prolonged legal process that could ultimately lead to a resumption of executions in the Golden State -- although it could still be years before the doors reopen in San Quentin's death chamber.
Under a recent settlement with families of murder victims, California prison officials agreed to propose a new single-drug execution method within 120 days of the Supreme Court's ruling in the Oklahoma legal challenge. It would mark the 1st progress in years toward devising a new execution procedure at San Quentin, where California has not executed a condemned killer in nearly a decade.
By upholding Oklahoma's controversial 3-drug lethal injection method in a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court appears to have removed a key legal hurdle for California to rely on some form of lethal drug.
"(It is) a pretty strong green light for California to go forward with whatever lethal injection protocol fits their own regulations and interests," said Douglas Berman, an Ohio State University law professor and author of the Sentencing Law and Policy blog.
"Today's decision ... starts off a very long, costly and wasteful process in California," said Ana Zamora, criminal justice policy director for the Northern California ACLU.
The Supreme Court, in a decision written by Justice Samuel Alito, rejected the arguments of death penalty foes that drugs such as those used in Oklahoma risk violating an inmate's right to a humane execution. "Holding that the 8th Amendment demands the elimination of essentially all risk of pain would effectively outlaw the death penalty altogether," the court's conservative majority wrote.
Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said the Supreme Court has made it much more difficult for a challenge to succeed against a new lethal injection procedure. "This opinion raises the bar for murderers who try to get an injunction against the protocol that is adopted," he said.
If California's revised lethal injection method does survive the legal gauntlet, it could open the spigot on executions in the state, which has had just 13 since the death penalty was restored in 1978. At least 15 death row inmates have exhausted their appeals and are eligible for execution dates, including three condemned Bay Area killers.
But even though the Brown administration will now restart the process in the fall, there are a host of inevitable delays, court showdowns and obstacles that will unfold before any of the state's 750 death inmates are executed.
Once prison leaders unveil the new single drug procedure -- which is expected to rely on a fatal dose of a single sedative instead of the three-drug cocktail that has failed to survive legal challenges in the past -- the state must go through mandatory administrative procedures and hearings that in the past took more than a year.
In fact, when the state last tried to resolve a longrunning federal court challenge to its 3-drug execution method, a state appeals court in 2013 found prison leaders did not comply with those administrative rules and invalidated the proposed execution method. That resulted in a 3-year limbo that led to the recent settlement of a lawsuit aimed at forcing the state to devise another lethal injection method.
Even if California completes the administrative process, significant obstacles remain. Other states that have opted for the single drug method have struggled to find supplies of the sedatives because drug makers are balking at providing them to states for executions, and California is expected to face the same dilemma.
In addition, the new procedure will face the scrutiny of a San Francisco federal judge who has put on hold a challenge to San Quentin's execution procedures that began in 2006. At that time, death row inmates argued that flaws in the method raise the prospect of a cruel and inhumane execution.
Source: Mercury News, June 29, 2015
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