Judge Clears Way For Executions In California

California's four-and-a-half year moratorium on capital punishment could end next week, after a federal judge on Friday cleared the way for the state to resume executions. Robert Siegel talks with KQED's Scott Shafer in San Francisco.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In California, a federal judge today cleared the way for capital punishment to resume in that state after a four-and-a-half year moratorium and the first execution is scheduled for next week.

Scott Shafer of member station KQED in San Francisco has been following the story. He joins us now. And, Scott, first, some background on this case. How did the moratorium come about?

SCOTT SHAFER: Well, Robert, this lawsuit was brought in 2006 by an inmate on death row named Michael Morales. His attorneys argued that the state's lethal injection protocol violated the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which, as you may know, prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. And he alleged that executions by lethal injection left the inmate in severe pain before they died.

And the judge in this case, Federal Judge Jeremy Fogel in San Jose, agreed after visiting San Quentin Prison where these executions take place. Judge Fogel found that facility that was used to be too small, had bad lighting, a number of other problems. And he also said there was poor recordkeeping, a lack of training for the execution team, and a whole host of other problems. So he issued that moratorium, which was lifted today.

SIEGEL: And why then did the same judge lift the moratorium?

SHAFER: Well, several things. Last month, California adopted comprehensive new regulations for lethal injections, spelling out in great detail how the drugs would be administered, who would do it, what kind of training they'd get, even how much money the condemned inmate would spend on his final meal.

And the other thing they did was to build a new lethal injection facility, which they unveiled this week to the media. I was on that tour. And I can say the new facility is clean. It's well lighted. It's much bigger than the old one. And all these things together apparently convinced the judge that its concerns had been addressed.

SIEGEL: So, Scott, who is the next person in line to be executed and that's scheduled for next week?

SHAFER: Next Wednesday at midnight. And ironically, it is not the inmate who brought this lawsuit, Michael Morales. The next inmate scheduled to die is Albert Greenwood Brown. What he did is rather graphic, I should warn listeners. Thirty years ago, he raped and murdered a 15-year-old girl in Riverside, California. He's been condemned to death since 1982 or so. And a death warrant for his execution has now been issued.

California, as you may know, has more than 700 people on death row, the largest of any state by far. The average inmate spends about 25 years there until their appeals process is exhausted.

SIEGEL: Scott, is it clear that this is the end of the moratorium or could it yet go to a higher court?

SHAFER: Well, it wouldn't probably go to a higher court, but there was a similar case brought in Marin County, in state court, where San Quentin is. There was an injunction that a judge issued there. But it was lifted earlier this week. Now, they could re-file in state court and try to get a new injunction, but it's not likely that that would happen.

SIEGEL: This is all happening as California is in the thick of an election, which includes the election of a new governor. Does capital punishment play at all in that contest?

SHAFER: Well, it's not at the top of the list, the economy is of course. And no one is suggesting that politics is driving this on the part of the judge. But what's interesting is that California's attorney general, Jerry Brown, is pushing hard for this execution to move forward.

Now, Brown is running for governor this year. And when he was governor back in the '70s and '80s, he was well known as an opponent of the death penalty. Now he's changed his mind on that many years ago and he supports capital punishment, which you've got to figure he'd like it if this execution happens before the election.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Scott.

SHAFER: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's KQED's Scott Shafer reporting from San Francisco on today's ruling by a federal judge. It clears the way for executions to resume in California.

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