California Debates Death Penalty

California Debates Death Penalty

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- Californians face a watershed year as they prepare to decide whether to resume executions that stopped a decade ago or end them entirely.

While advocates jockey to put both choices before voters this fall, officials overseeing the 746 condemned inmates on the nation's largest death row are pushing ahead with plans to use a single lethal drug to meet legal requirements amid a nationwide shortage of execution drugs.

They will hold a public hearing Friday on their proposal to let corrections officials choose from four types of powerful barbiturates to execute prisoners. About 12,000 people have submitted written comments ahead of the hearing.

A choice would be made for each execution, depending on which drug is available. The single drug would replace the series of three drugs that were last used in 2006, when 76-year-old Clarence Ray Allen was executed for ordering a triple murder.

A recent Field Poll showed an almost even split among voters on the death penalty, with 48 percent wanting to speed up the legal process leading to executions and 47 percent seeking to replace executions with life sentences without the possibility of parole.

"This could be the year when it comes to a head in the public vote on a very interesting pair of initiatives," Field Poll Director Mark DiCamillo said. "I don't think anyone can forecast how it will turn out."

In 2012, voters rejected ending the death penalty by 4 percentage points, but DiCamillo said frustration with the seemingly endless delays and mounting expenses are driving more people to favor doing away with it entirely.

The proposed single-drug injection process is the latest attempt to resume executions after a federal judge halted executions in 2006 and ordered prison officials to improve execution procedures that used a series of three drugs to knock out an inmate before the lethal dose was administered.

Five years later, a Marin County judge rejected the state's newly developed three-drug lethal injection regulations that relied in part on a drug no longer available in the U.S.

Eight states already have used a single drug for executions and there is no reason the courts shouldn't quickly approve California's new regulations once the procedure is adopted, said Michael Rushford, president of the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.

The group sued to force California to adopt the method suggested by state and federal judges in ongoing cases, and Rushford predicted executions could resume this year if the rules are finalized soon.

"This needs to be resolved," he said.

Death penalty opponents said they will keep challenging the regulations.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California is suing to obtain at least 79,000 corrections department documents related to lethal injections. It says the regulations may lack enough safeguards to prevent the state from using backdoor ways to obtain execution drugs that manufacturers never intended for that purpose.

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Terry Thornton said the documents the department used to develop the proposed regulations are already available to the public.

Rushford supported the department's proposal to let the warden of San Quentin State Prison choose between amobarbital, pentobarbital, secobarbital and thiopental to impose the death penalty. That could speed up executions by helping California avoid some of the problems with a lack of available drugs that have delayed executions in other states, he said.

Megan McCracken, a lawyer with the Berkeley Law Death Penalty Clinic, said in a statement that amobarbital and secobarbital have never been used in executions and would amount to human experimentation.

Corrections officials are proposing to use those drugs without providing enough information about safety and effectiveness or about where the state will get them, she said.

The move would amount to "teeing up the state for what is sure to be a protracted mess," she said.