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California Capital Punishment News
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  1. #1
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    California Capital Punishment News

    Prosecutors, crime victims and Republican lawmakers said Wednesday they are prepared to go to the ballot if the Democratic-controlled Legislature refuses to act on a package of bills to speed up California's death penalty.

    At a news conference held at the Capitol, the death penalty advocates said their proposed legislation could cut nearly in half the 15 to 20 years it now takes for the state's criminal justice system to process the cases. The bills would not affect appeals in the federal system that routinely extend death penalty delays beyond two decades.

    "The vast majority of Californians are in support of the death penalty, but they're frustrated because the average (delay) of 17 years is just too long, and 20, 21, 24 years is way too long," John Poyner, president of the California District Attorneys Association and the chief prosecutor in Colusa County, told reporters.

    Lance Lindsey, executive director of San Francisco-based Death Penalty Focus, a group that staunchly opposes capital punishment, said the thrust of legislative package unveiled Wednesday "is moving in the contrary direction" of concerns about wrongful executions.

    "The notion of speeding up the death penalty is contrary to what the best experts in the criminal justice system and the judicial system are concluding," Lindsey said. "There has to be more care, more deliberation. There is too much error in the system, and I think this is misguided to say the least."

    Backers of the legislation said they do not expect their bills to make it through the Legislature. The key bills would cut down on the time it takes to appoint an attorney to represent a convicted murderer facing the death penalty and force officials to correct mistakes in the official record of a murder case within 120 days of a conviction.

    They said they want to go to the ballot in either June or November of 2010.

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    Death penalty bills' focus----DA group aims to eliminate delays

    In a bid to reform California's death-penalty laws, 7 bills have been introduced in the state Legislature.

    Most of the bills are designed to eliminate delays and set key benchmarks. One bill seeks to expand the crimes punishable by death by including the intentional killing of a child under 14 years old.

    An announcement of the legislation was made at a news conference Wednesday in Sacramento by members of the California District Attorneys Association with members of the state Senate and Assembly.

    "The voice of those who have been victims of these brutal crimes must never be forgotten," Riverside County District Attorney Rod Pacheco, who chairs the association's Capital Litigation Committee, said in a prepared statement.

    "We speak for them and seek accountability for the criminals who have been convicted and sentenced."

    Members of the group said they seek an efficient, timely and fair death penalty in California.

    If the Legislature fails to act on the bills, the group will take the matter to state voters in the form of a ballot initiative, Pacheco said.

    San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael A. Ramos echoed his Riverside County colleague's sentiments in a telephone interview Thursday.

    "We really need to move forward on cleaning up the whole capital litigation process," he said.

    The biggest impact is on victims' family members who wait years and years for justice, Ramos said.

    Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978 in California, executions have been delayed an average of nearly 18 years, according to the state Department of Justice.

    But recent trends indicate death-row inmates will wait more than 20 years before they are executed, Pacheco said.

    Death-penalty opponents agree the system is flawed and are pushing for alternatives, such as life in prison without parole, a sentence they see as cheaper, faster and more effective.

    "I think these bills are really out of touch with the direction the state is moving," said Stefanie Faucher, program director for the San Francisco-based Death Penalty Focus.

    Founded in 1988, Death Penalty Focus is a nonprofit dedicated to educating the public about capital punishment.

    Faucher called it premature to offer legislation when a bipartisan blue-ribbon commission addressing the death penalty is expected to announce possible reforms in June.

    The bills introduced in the Legislature aim to have a qualified defense attorney appointed to an inmate within one year of sentencing, make trial attorneys responsible for court records' accuracy, and allow judges to choose a time frame for execution as opposed to a specific date.

    One of the bills would give victims' families the right to raise concerns about any undue delays.

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    Executions in California may resume by the end of the year -- with one inmate being put to death by lethal injection each month -- as a result of today's Supreme Court ruling, a high-level state prosecutor said.

    Chief Assistant Atty. Gen. Dane Gillette, who has defended the state's lethal injection procedures against a federal court challenge, said he believes it is "certainly feasible" to resume executions by the end of the year.

    U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel in San Jose had ordered a temporary halt to executions in California after finding the state's lethal injection procedures were unconstitutional. A decision by Fogel on whether a new execution protocol by the state meets constitutional requirements is pending.

    A hearing in the case has been set for June, but Gillette said it may be moved up as a result of today's high court ruling. The state plans to ask Fogel to lift his court order and permit executions to resume.

    Even if Fogel rules quickly for the state, another legal challenge pending in a California appellate court will prevent the state from executing inmates immediately. Gillette said the state would press for a quick resolution in that case, which was unaffected by the Supreme Court decision.

    Resuming executions this year "means a lot of things falling our way, but I think that is entirely possible," Gillette said.

    He said there are five inmates who have exhausted their appeals and could be executed once the litigation is settled.

    Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said the high court's ruling supports the state's case to resume executions.

    "I will continue to defend the death penalty and the will of the people, and I am confident that California's lethal injection protocol will be upheld," Schwarzenegger said.

    California's last execution was of Clarence Allen in January 2006. A month later, state officials -- in a dramatic 11th-hour turnaround -- called off the execution of Michael Morales, who had challenged the constitutionality of lethal injection as cruel and unusual punishment.

    Fogel ruled in December 2006 that the state's procedures ran an unacceptable risk of inflicting unnecessarily painful deaths, but said they could be fixed. Five months later, corrections officials, largely behind closed doors, issued a new blueprint for executions, saying the changes would "result in the dignified end of life" for condemned inmates. Morales' lawyers said aspects of the overhaul were worse than the old procedures.

    State officials last year began building a larger, better illuminated death chamber designed for lethal injection executions. Gillette said construction has been completed.

    The old facility, built in 1937 as the state's gas chamber, was criticized as dimly lit and crowded, relegating executioners outside the death room and making it difficult for them to properly monitor possible problems with the intravenous drug injections.

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    Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Wednesday's U.S. Supreme Court decision to allow lethal injections for death row inmates affirms California's capital punishment procedure and would allow executions to resume.

    They have been on hold for two years because of legal challenges in federal and state court.

    "I will continue to defend the death penalty and the will of the people, and I am confident that California's lethal injection protocol will be upheld," the governor said in a statement.

    The Supreme Court voted 7-2 Wednesday to reject a challenge to the execution procedure in Kentucky, which uses three drugs to sedate, paralyze and kill inmates.

    California is among the roughly three dozen states that uses a similar procedure. Executions have been delayed in California because of similar arguments claiming the drugs might not always work as intended, leaving inmates to die a painful death.

    California has the nation's largest death row, with 669 convicts awaiting execution, including 15 women and 654 men.

    In February 2006, California corrections officials halted the execution of convicted rapist and murderer Michael Morales hours before he was to be put to death.

    Attorneys for Morales had challenged the three-drug sequence California used for its lethal-injection procedure one month before his scheduled execution.

    They wrote that if the drugs were not administered properly it could leave Morales "paralyzed but conscious and suffering death from ... burning veins and heart failure."

    In response, U.S. District Court Judge Jeremy Fogel recommended that the state monitor the execution with two anesthesiologists. One would be in the execution chamber and another nearby to make sure Morales was unconscious before the two remaining drugs were injected.

    Morales' execution was delayed for a day and ultimately canceled after the anesthesiologists refused to participate because of ethical concerns.

    "There has been a de facto moratorium," said Seth Unger, a spokesman with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. "The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling opens the door for us to proceed with the Morales case in California."

    The next step is a hearing in Fogel's courtroom in San Jose, scheduled for June 12. At that time, the judge could set a schedule for reviewing the state's proposed execution procedure.

    In December 2006, he ruled that California's procedure was so badly designed and carried out that it was likely to cause pain and suffering.

    Since then, the state has taken a number of steps to address the concerns, including building a better-lighted death chamber at San Quentin State Prison.

    Corrections official submitted a new execution plan, but it was invalidated last fall by a Marin County Superior Court judge.

    Attorney Brad Phillips sued the state in Marin County, home to San Quentin, on behalf of two condemned inmates. Judge Lynn O'Malley Taylor agreed with Phillips that state prison officials had failed to gather public comment and take other required steps in forming their new execution plan.

    The state is appealing the Marin County ruling. In the meantime, Unger expects the lethal-injection case before the federal court in San Jose to proceed.

    David Senior, one of Morales' attorneys, said he expects the federal judge to delay a decision until California state courts resolve the pending administrative challenge.

    "California may ultimately choose a procedure which is completely different from the state of Kentucky's," he said.

    No judge in California has scheduled an execution since the one was halted for Morales, who was sentenced in 1983 for the rape and murder two years before of 17-year-old Terri Winchell in a Lodi vineyard.

    "There are four people who have basically exhausted all their appeals ... and for whom we could set dates once the Morales litigation is resolved," said Gareth Lacy, spokesman for the state Attorney General's Office.

    State attorneys reviewing the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Kentucky case preliminarily believe it also will end challenges to California's procedure, Lacy said.

  5. #5
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    July 1, 2008

    Death row report sees failed system

    By Maura Dolan
    The Los Angeles Times

    California's administration of the death penalty is "dysfunctional" and "close to collapse," plagued by delays of nearly twice the national average from sentencing to execution and drowning under a backlog of cases, a state commission reported today.

    In its final report, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice said the state's death row of 670 inmates -- the largest in the nation -- will continue to swell unless the state nearly doubles what it now spends on attorneys for inmates or changes sentencing laws.

    In an interview, Santa Clara University law professor Gerald Uelmen, executive director of the commission, called today's report "kind of like poking a stick in a hornet's nest" and predicted it would receive wide attention.

    The 22-member commission, created by the Legislature to recommend improvements in the criminal justice system, includes law enforcement and defense bar representatives and victim advocates.

    Although commissioners strongly disagreed on some issues, they were unanimous in concluding that the current death penalty system was failing and in agreeing that a large amount of money was needed for significant change. The report offers alternative proposals for reform.

    The commission did not advocate abolishing the death penalty but did note that California could save $100 million a year if the state replaced the punishment with sentences of life in prison without possibility of parole. Death row prisoners cost more to confine, are granted more resources for appeals, have more expensive trials and usually die in prison anyway, the commission said in its 117-page report.

    The time from death sentence to execution in California is 20 to 25 years, compared with the national average of 12 years, the commission said. Thirty inmates have been on death row more than 25 years, 119 for more than 20 and 240 for more than 15.

    "The system's failures create cynicism and disrespect for the rule of law . . . weaken any possible deterrent benefits of capital punishment, increase the emotional trauma experienced by murder victims' families and delay the resolution of meritorious capital appeals," the commission said.

    The commission learned of "no credible evidence" that the state had executed an innocent person but said the risk remained. Fourteen people convicted of murder in California from 1989 through 2003 were later exonerated. Six death row inmates who won new trials were acquitted or had their charges dismissed for lack of evidence.

    Among the panel's findings:

    * After sentences of death, cases are automatically appealed to the California Supreme Court, which upholds the sentence 90% of the time, compared with an approval rate of 73.7% in 14 other death penalty states from 1992 to 2002. Since 1978, 70% of the cases upheld by the state and then appealed to federal courts have been overturned.

    * A 1978 voter initiative that helped make 87% of first-degree murders subject to the death penalty dramatically increased the number of death sentences in the state. In the year before passage of the so-called Briggs Initiative, seven people were sentenced to death. By 2000, death sentences were averaging 32 a year. They have since leveled off to about 20 a year.

    * California's death row inmates whose sentences or verdicts were later overturned waited an average of 16.75 years for their reprieves.

    * Seventy-nine death row inmates have not obtained lawyers to handle their first appeals, which are by law automatic, and 291 inmates lack lawyers to bring constitutional challenges based on facts that the trial courts did not hear. It takes inmates an average of 12 years to obtain a state high court ruling on their first appeals.

    * The California Supreme Court has such a backlog that only one appeal from a conviction after 1997 has been resolved.

    * California does not meet the federal standard for paying private lawyers to handle death cases, and the state's method of paying these attorneys -- sometimes with flat-fee contracts -- violates American Bar Assn. standards.

    * Since the death penalty's restoration in 1978, 38 death row inmates have died of natural causes, 14 have committed suicide, 13 have been executed and 98 have left death row because their convictions or sentences were overturned.

    "Delays grow worse every year," the commission said.

    The commission attributed the unusually high rate of reversals by federal courts in California death cases to the availability of more federal money for investigations, the opportunity to develop a more complete factual record in federal hearings, and "the greater independence of federal judges with lifetime appointments."

    Law professor Uelmen, an expert on the state high court, said the reversals were due to "the limited amount of time that the California Supreme Court has to give these cases," adding that the high court is "just overwhelmed with these cases."

    To reduce the backlog of cases, the commission said the state would have to nearly double its spending for lawyers and investigators, trim the number of offenses that qualify for the death penalty or simply sentence all death-qualified prisoners to life without possibility of parole.

    "Public debate on the death penalty arouses deeply felt passions on both sides," the report said. "The time has come for a rational consideration of all alternatives based upon objective information and realistic assessments."

    Most commissioners recommended that the state Constitution be amended to permit intermediate courts of appeal to decide capital cases rather than having them go straight to the California Supreme Court. The proposal would speed up death penalty appeals and lead to earlier executions.

    There are now 21 circumstances that qualify a defendant for the death penalty. One of the most frequently used circumstances in California is felony murder, in which a person is killed during the course of another felony, such as a robbery. The death penalty can be given to anyone who participated in the robbery, not just the person who did the killing.

    An alternative, the commission noted, would be to limit the number of crimes eligible for the death penalty. If the state chooses to reduce the number of qualifying offenses, the sentences of inmates whose crimes were not among them should be commuted to life without possibility of parole, the commission said.

    "Taking this step would actually have little impact for the death row inmates involved," the commission said. "Most of them will never be executed but will die in prison."

    Several commissioners presented individual reports, some rejecting any narrowing of death-qualifying offenses and others wanting all death sentences converted to life without parole.

    The commission expires today. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has vetoed three bills that grew out of the commission's previous recommendations. Another bill became law. Other commission proposals could be implemented without the need for legislative action.

    It will take five to six years before the full import of the commission is known, Uelmen said. Borrowing a line from a former New Jersey chief justice, Uelmen added: "The criminal justice system is not a sport for the short-winded."


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    District attorneys meet over execution delays

    The new state budget lawmakers are fighting over with the governor includes nearly $400 million to improve San Quentin's death row. That is where district attorneys from around the state met Tuesday to discuss a report which finds that endless delays in executions are making a mockery of California's justice system.

    "The saying 'time heals' is nothing more than an old wives' tale," said Patricia Pendergrass, whose brother was killed in 1980. Clarence Ray Allen was given the death penalty for that murder. However, it took 26 years before he was finally executed.

    "It's time for California to take the necessary steps to strengthen the death penalty," Pendergrass said.

    Pendergrass was among those appearing at a briefing held by the Institute for Advancement of Criminal Justice. It released what it calls "the most comprehensive review of capital punishment in state history." The institute is the research arm of the California District Attorneys Association. "We now have over 600 individuals currently under sentence of death with their appeals either pending in state courts or pending in our federal courts," said State Court of Appeal Justice James Ardaiz.

    "A never-ending appeals process is unfair to those who are seeking justice and it's a mockery of our legal system," said Colusa County District Attorney John Poyner.

    The review concludes the system is broken, but that the death penalty works.

    "When used correctly, the death penalty is the single greatest deterrent to murder," Poyner said. The institute also found the death penalty is seldom used in California.

    "Even though 942 defendants, for instance in 2006, were convicted of murder, only 16 of them were actually sentenced to death," said Deputy State Attorney General Ward Campbell.

    The ACLU monitored the news conference. The group opposes capital punishment. They agree the system is broken, but they say the solution is to give the worst offenders life without parole.

    "If we were to make that change in our law, we'd save hundreds of millions of dollars. Money that we can then invest in solving all of the unsolved murders in California," said ACLU's Natasha Minsker. The district attorneys say bills that wold have addressed many of the issues they raised have failed in the Legislature. So they plan to go directly to the voters by sponsoring ballot measures in the 2010 election.

    (Source: KGO News)

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    Death penalty boosters rally at San Quentin

    Law officers and families of victims who support the death penalty rallied at the gate of San Quentin State Prison Tuesday to promote a new journal that details arguments in favor of capital punishment. The anthology, produced by the Institute for the Advancement of Criminal Justice, argues that when used appropriately and sparingly for the most violent offenders, the death penalty provides a deterrent to crime.

    Authors include attorneys who have prosecuted death penalty cases and family members of victims.

    The crowd at the event included officials with the state attorney general's office, an appellate court justice and several district attorneys from around the state, including Marin County District Attorney Edward Berberian.

    Capital murder cases are rare in Marin, Berberian noted later, and the death penalty is reserved for special circumstances.

    "If I feel there are special circumstances, we will seek the death penalty," Berberian said.

    He said that families of the victims typically spend decades reliving the deaths of their loved ones while cases wend their way through the appeals process.

    "The defendants, who have engaged in some very horrendous and horrible crimes, are almost elevated while the victims' stories are lost," Berberian said.

    The journal, "The Death Penalty in California," indicates that 942 defendants were committed to prison on a charge of murder in the state in 2006. Of those, just 16, or 1.7 %, were sentenced to death.

    Journal authors maintain that in California, there has never been a finding of prosecutorial abuse in the decision-making process, and that racial bias has not been a factor in the 30-year history of the death penalty.

    While 48 % of adults charged with homicide are black, only 42 % of those were sent to death row, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. "It diminishes the victims when people burn candles and mourn someone who has committed a heinous crime," Klaas said. "People on death row are some of the worst individuals that appear on the face of the earth.

    "The abolitionists refuse to acknowledge that evil exists and evil has to be put down."

    Anti-death penalty activist Martin Roth of Corte Madera believes prisons should provide rehabilitation so that inmates can become productive when they are released; instead, too often they commit crimes hat return them to prison for life without the possibility of parole, or for a death sentence.

    "San Quentin is a kind of glum place and I don't think anyone gets cured there," Roth said. "They keep going back because they don't get rehabilitated."

    Copies of the journal are available on the Institute for Advancement of Criminal Justice Web site at www.IAJC.org.

    The institute is a nonprofit that researches criminal justice matters and supports victims' rights.

    (Source: The Marin Independent Journal)

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    September 18, 2008

    Appeals court to consider state's death penalty gridlock

    Five months after the U.S. Supreme Court offered a legal road map to states dealing with challenges to lethal injection, California is no closer to resuming executions on the nation's largest death row.

    Today, however, the legal battle over lethal injection in this state will finally inch forward when an appeals court in San Francisco considers one of the two cases paralyzing California's death penalty machinery. While the hearing will not catapult the standoff over lethal injection in the state to a conclusion, it is a first step toward kick-starting a legal showdown that will decide whether the state's execution method can pass muster in the courts.

    In particular, the 1st District Court of Appeal will hear arguments in the state's appeal of a Marin judge's order last fall that found that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration broke state rules when it adopted new lethal injection procedures. If the judge's order holds up, it could force the state to go back to the drawing board and hold public hearings before it can establish a new execution protocol.

    "We're always hopeful to advance things,'' said Ronald Matthias, a senior assistant attorney general in charge of death-penalty appeals.

    Today's hearing is just one wrinkle in the long-running battle over lethal injection in California, where executions have been on hold for more than two years because of a lawsuit arguing that the method is cruel and unusual punishment. But until the 1st District — and perhaps the California Supreme Court — resolve the case involving the governor's plan, the central legal challenge to lethal injection in California will remain stuck in neutral.

    A San Jose federal judge in December 2006 concluded the state's system is "broken,'' but outlined a number of steps state officials could take to address his concerns and ensure that executions are carried out humanely. In response to that order from U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel, the governor ordered state prison officials to come up with a new plan, which was unveiled last year. Among other things, the plan called for improved training and supervision of execution team members. It also called for construction of a new death chamber at San Quentin to replace the prison's antiquated, decades-old unit.

    But lawyers for death row inmates sued over the governor's plan, arguing that it was developed in secret in violation of state provisions requiring public input. In court papers, Schwarzenegger's lawyers insist that such prison rules do not require public hearings — the crux of the issue to be heard today.

    In the meantime, the new death chamber has been completed while the court fights have been dormant. And other than the addition of a few more inmates to death row — which now exceeds 670 condemned murderers — not much else has happened.

    The case before Fogel was put on hold while the Supreme Court considered a challenge to Kentucky's lethal injection procedure, which is similar to California's and most other states.

    In April, the Supreme Court upheld Kentucky's method, but the ruling left it to judges around the country to apply the standards to each state's system. Cases have been unfolding in other states, including, most recently, in Missouri, Arkansas and Ohio, where judges have held hearings to consider lethal injection procedures. Several states have gone ahead with executions, such as Texas and Florida.

    But Fogel has put the California case on hold until the state courts resolve the fight over the governor's plan, creating a de facto moratorium on executions. The judge has even postponed indefinitely a planned trip to San Quentin to tour the new execution chamber.

    The 1st District will have 90 days to rule on the case, but legal experts say it will be much longer before the wrangling over the execution method is completed.

    "We don't know whether what the attorney general or department of corrections has proposed as a new protocol is valid,'' said Elisabeth Semel, head of Boalt Hall School of Law's death penalty clinic. "It was adopted in secret.''

    "People should know and understand what the process is when we're talking about the state taking a life,'' she added. "Everyone benefits from knowing as much as possible.''


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    A state appeals court on Friday ensured further delays in California's already inert death penalty system, finding that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration did not follow proper procedures when it attempted to revise the state's lethal injection method to get executions back on track.

    In a 14-page ruling, the San Francisco-based 1st District Court of Appeal upheld last year's decision by a Marin County judge, who found state officials failed to provide public scrutiny of plans to overhaul California's execution method. The appeals court ruling, if it stands, would force the state to go back to the drawing board in its efforts to bring the execution system into compliance with a federal judge's concerns that the current method is unconstitutional.

    The appeals court ruling will have a ripple effect on California's bogged down capital punishment system. A broader legal challenge in federal court to California's lethal injection method cannot move forward until the state comes up with a revised procedure, and that is now tied up further as a result of the appeals court's findings.

    Senior Assistant Attorney General Ronald Matthias, who supervises the state's death penalty cases, was still reviewing the decision and could not predict the next step. But the state can either appeal to the California Supreme Court or move forward with public review of the proposed lethal injection reforms, and either process would take months or longer.

    The ruling is linked to a long-running challenge from death row inmates who argue that the lethal injection method is cruel and unusual punishment because it exposes an inmate to the prospect of an inhumane execution. Executions have been on hold in California for nearly three years as a result of the legal challenge, one of dozens around the country contesting lethal injection.

    U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel in December 2006 concluded the state's current lethal injection system is "broken,'' but outlined a number of steps state officials could take to address his concerns and ensure that executions are carried out humanely. In response to that ruling, the governor ordered state prison officials to come up with a new plan, which was unveiled last year. Among other things, the plan called for improved training and supervision of execution team members, as well as the construction of a new, modernized execution chamber, which has since been completed.

    But the plan was challenged in state court under the argument it violated state procedures that require public review. Fogel put the federal case on hold until that issue is resolved.

    In the meantime, the U.S. Supreme Court this spring upheld a lethal injection procedure in Kentucky similar to California's, a ruling that will set the ground rules for California's case when it returns to Fogel. There are now more than 670 inmates on death row awaiting execution, including several who have exhausted their appeals and will face swift execution dates if the lethal injections resume.

    Condemned Santa Clara County killer David Allen Raley is among those inmates who have run out of legal options.

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    State decides to seek public input on execution plan

    California officials have abandoned a legal fight over their bid to secretly overhaul the state's execution method, a move that sends the issue back to square one and leaves San Quentin's newly-constructed execution chamber idled for the foreseeable future.

    Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration decided not to appeal November's ruling by a state appeals court, which found that prison officials failed to follow proper administrative procedures when they attempted to revise California's lethal injection method without any public input.. State lawyers had until Dec. 31 to appeal to the state Supreme Court, but have decided instead to follow the administrative rules and put the execution plan through public review, likely including public hearings.

    Deputy Attorney General Michael Quinn, who is handling the issue for the state, had no timetable on the administrative hearings, saying officials are now evaluating how to move forward. Brad Phillips, who represents 2 death row inmates in the case, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

    The latest development marks another tangle in California's bid to overcome various legal challenges to its execution method and resume lethal injections on the state's death row, which now houses about 770 condemned murderers. Executions have been on hold for nearly 3 years, the result of a federal court challenge to the lethal injection method, which death row inmates argue is inhumane.

    A federal judge in San Jose 2 years ago found the state's lethal injection procedures "broken,'' but invited state officials to devise improvements, ranging from upgrading the training of execution team members to replacing San Quentin's antiquated death chamber. Prison officials and the governor responded with new execution procedures, but those were challenged separately in state court because of the failure to expose them to public review.

    In the meantime, prison officials completed construction of a new execution chamber.

    The end of the state court battle does not end the legal wrangling over lethal injections. The federal court case remains on hold until the state comes up with a valid plan to improve the way executions are carried out. Even when the administrative hearings are complete and the state finalizes new procedures, they will face further scrutiny in the federal case, ensuring more delays.

    John Grele, who represents death row inmate Michael Morales in the federal case, could not predict how the administrative review will impact the ongoing challenge to lethal injection.

    "I can't really say if it's a positive or negative,'' Grele said. "It depends on how things go through that process.''

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