Federal judge who halted California executions tours new San Quentin death chamber

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A guard stands at the entrance to the California State Prison at San Quentin in San Quentin, California.

A federal judge halted executions in California five years ago over concerns about sloppy executions. One deficiency he noted was the state’s death chamber at San Quentin. The judge said its design prevented staff from adequately monitoring inmates during executions. Today, KPCC's Julie Small toured the death chamber at San Quentin, joining federal judge Jeremy Fogel, who halted executions there five years ago.

Updated at 1:51 p.m. | Permalink

U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel and about 20 prison officials, attorneys and members of the media inspected the new lethal injection facility at San Quentin for about an hour.

Judge Fogel toured room by room, asking prison officials and their attorneys to clarify how they’ll conduct executions in the new space. He toured the public viewing area, the cell where the inmate spends his or her last hours and the execution chamber itself, but he spent the most time in the room where staff prepares and administers the lethal injection drugs.

California uses three drugs to execute inmates: the first is a barbiturate that renders the inmate unconscious, the second drug paralyzes the inmate and the third stops the inmate’s heart.

In 2006 Judge Fogel found that California’s death chamber was so cramped and poorly lit that prison staff could not fully monitor the infusion of drugs or the inmate’s response to them.

That raised questions about whether inmates were still conscious during executions.

Judge Fogel halted executions in the state until prison officials could fix the chamber and provide adequate training and oversight of execution teams.

He plans to hold a full evidentiary hearing on the changes to the state’s execution methods later this year. Judge Fogel said he wants that to happen ”as soon as possible”

Attorneys for inmates on the tour asked for measurements to be taken such as measuring the distance between where the syringes would be during an execution, measuring the size of the window opening and measuring the depth of the wall that the tubes carrying the drug from the infusion room to the death chamber go through.

This all relates to the problems that were there before, when those administering the drugs couldn't see them moving through the tubes.

Attorneys on the tour tried to get different things on the record, as well as questioning how things would actually function in a real execution. The attorney asked who would be monitoring the executions, what kind of equipment would be used, how the drugs would be stored, how they would be labeled, what the process would actually be and whether there would be backup syringes.

Attorney John Grele said that he was surprised that the tour wasn't set up in a more visual fashion to see how an execution would function. He said that the information officer from the prisons on the tour wasn't able to answer questions about how an execution would work. "So that's why this is just a first step. We obviously have to come back and look at all that stuff ... and do it again."

Grele said that, when San Quentin was doing executions, inmates were not being executed humanely. "Looking at the record, any impartial view of the record would be pretty clear about that. And so that's a big concern. They have a track record of failure."

- Julie Small & Mike Roe

Updated at 9:52 a.m. | Permalink

Five years ago, federal judge Jeremy Fogel took a tour of the execution chamber at San Quentin and issued a moratorium on lethal injections until California fixed problems with the chamber's design.

To bring the death chamber up to the standards Fogel was looking for, the state has invested $900,000 in upgrades.

KPCC's Julie Small is part of a small group of reporters going on a tour of the chamber this morning with Fogel as he inspects the upgraded chamber.

Fogel's 2006 tour resulted from a suit brought by inmate Michael Morales, condemned to die for the rape and murder of a 17-year-old girl. Morales sued to stop his execution, arguing that the death penalty as carried out in California was cruel and unusual punishment.

Morales asserted that the state wasn't doing enough to make sure inmates are unconscious at the time of their execution. California's lethal injection process uses a three-drug cocktail; the first is supposed to anesthesize the convict, the second paralyzes them and the third stops their heart.

Fogel was convinced that the state wasn't able to properly monitor executions. He didn't say that the three-drug method is unconstitutional, but it has to be done right.

Physical changes have been made to the chamber. Before, the state had converted an old gas chamber into a lethal injection chamber after the state switched to that method. It included a metal cage, with the patient strapped to a gurney and sealed shut inside.

Before, holes were drilled in the wall and drugs would flow from a neighboring room into the room with the prisoner. The room where drugs are administered is still separate, but there are bigger windows to view the inmate and watch their reactions the drugs. The old death chamber was poorly lit and cramped, while the new chamber is brightly lit and spacious.

It remains to be seen whether the upgrades are enough to satisfy the judge's concerns. The judge wants to make sure there's a protocol in place where execution staff can monitor inmates and view their reactions to the drugs as they're being administered.

There also remains a problem in finding one of the drugs in the cocktail, sodium thiopental. California's supply expired in the fall, then the company that manufactured the drug stopped making it last month.

California went on an international search to find a new supply, acquiring the drug from a U.K. manufacturer. However, there are major concerns about the legality of using a drug imported from another country.

The imported drug hasn't passed FDA regulation. The Department of Corrections says it was legally obtained, but that's being questioned. No one is taking responsibility for approving the drug, with questions remaining about whether it will work.

- Julie Small & Mike Roe

Earlier:

The legal challenge arose from an inmate. A jury had sentenced Michael Morales to death for the rape and murder of a 17-year-old girl.

In 2006 he claimed that California’s execution method was a form of cruel and unusual punishment. His attorneys convinced U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel that Morales’ assertion might be true.

Fogel found so many deficiencies in the state’s execution system that he issued a moratorium on lethal injections until California fixed some problems, starting with the death chamber’s design.

"It was cramped, the lighting was poor, the delivery mechanism for the drugs was really long and convoluted," says Ty Alperr with UC Berkeley Law School's death penalty clinic.

Alper explains the judge’s finding that prison employees were unable to monitor the injection of lethal drugs or the inmates’ response presents a problem because California executes inmates with a succession of three drugs. The first anesthetizes the inmate, and the remaining two paralyze him and stop his heart. Alper says it’s very important that first drug works.

"The anesthesia in a lethal injection functions exactly the same as it does in a hospital setting," Alper explains. "It’s used to anesthetize the person before an excruciatingly painful procedure – in this case an execution – and so if it doesn’t work, then the person feels what they’re not supposed to feel, which is the excruciating pain."

California’s corrections officials spent nearly a million dollars to renovate the lethal injection facility at San Quentin. If Judge Fogel finds the new chamber adequate, he’ll still want proof that the state’s corrected other critical deficiencies. Five years ago, Fogel said poor training and oversight of execution staff had resulted in improper mixing and storage of the drugs California uses to execute prisoners.

KPCC's Julie Small will be tweeting from the tour of the San Quentin death chamber from 10 a.m. today until about noon; you can follow her Twitter account @KPCCJulie.

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