Now more than seven years since the last execution in California, the state this week will try again to revive its dormant death penalty system in an appeals court considering the latest legal tangle over San Quentin's lethal injection procedures.
In a hearing Tuesday, the 1st District Court of Appeal will review a Marin County judge's 2011 order stopping executions because prison officials failed to comply with administrative rules in revising California's three-drug execution method. The Brown administration appealed the ruling, likely assuring the state will not execute anyone this year on its 734-inmate death row.
Even as the appeal proceeds, prison officials continue to craft a new execution procedure that would rely on a single drug to put condemned killers to death, similar to methods other states such as Arizona, Washington and Ohio set up to short-circuit challenges to the three-drug procedures. A prison spokeswoman said last week there is no timetable for adopting a single-drug method.
But California appears a long way from resolving a morass of state and federal legal battles over lethal injection.
Switching to the single-drug approach would likely require a new round of administrative hearings, which could take a year or more. Resolution of the legal battle in the 1st District would only pave the way for a return to the federal courts, which first put executions on hold in 2006. And states across the country, including California, are facing fresh problems over a shortage of drugs used in executions, and questions over whether they've obtained them legally from overseas manufacturers.
Syndicated columnist Tim Rutten writes, "California on track to stop killing its own." It's via the San Gabriel Valley Tribune.
Last November, California came surprisingly close to becoming the sixth state in the past five years to abolish the death penalty, when voters rejected a proposition on the question, 52.7 percent to 47.3 percent. That result represented a nearly 19 percent decline in support for executions from 1976, when 71 percent of the state's voters approved a referendum re-establishing capital punishment. Nationally, in fact, both the number of death sentences imposed and the number of executions carried out has declined steadily since their high point in 1999 and reached new lows in each of the past four years.
Some of this reluctance to engage in legal killing comes, of course, from moral scruple. Many others have followed the sobering number of wrongful convictions revealed by new forensic technologies such as DNA identification, and concluded that no process as clearly fallible as our criminal justice system ought to be empowered to impose an irrevocable sanction, like death. Others have become acquainted with the racial disparities that continue to characterize death sentences across the country and concluded that capital punishment's tendency to erode constitutional guarantees of equal protection under the law simply aren't eradicable.
Others have come to agree with former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who in 2008 wrote that three decades of service on the court had lead him to conclude that his vote to reinstate executions was a mistake. "I have relied on my own experience," Stevens wrote, "in reaching the conclusion that the imposition of the death penalty represents the pointless and needless extinction of life with only marginal contributions to any discernible social or public purposes." A criminal punishment with "such negligible returns to the State is patently excessive and cruel," he concluded.