Calif. seeks advice on lethal injection changes

SAN FRANCISCO Thu Feb 15, 2007 6:10pm EST

The San Quentin prison in San Quentin, California, December 12, 2005. California penal officials are traveling nationwide to confer with experts to overcome a federal judge's objections to its execution procedure, the state's top prison official said on Thursday. REUTERS/Kimberly White

The San Quentin prison in San Quentin, California, December 12, 2005. California penal officials are traveling nationwide to confer with experts to overcome a federal judge's objections to its execution procedure, the state's top prison official said on Thursday.

Credit: Reuters/Kimberly White

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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - California penal officials are traveling nationwide to confer with experts to overcome a federal judge's objections to its execution procedure, the state's top prison official said on Thursday.

In December, federal Judge Jeremy Fogel found the state's executions through lethal injection unconstitutional, but gave officials until May to present a new procedure.

"I have people on my staff who are traveling around the country assessing our policies and procedures and what changes need to be made to be compliant with the court," James Tilton, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said in an interview.

The courts "have indicated that they think there are improvements that can be made to pass the constitutionality and we are confident that we can do that now," he continued. "By looking around the country we are think that we can provide some improvements to our process that will be compliant."

The death penalty is under what may be an unprecedented review in the United States, mostly involving questions about lethal injection, by far the most common method of execution.

About one-third of the 38 states that allow capital punishment have halted or delayed executions while legal and ethical challenges are resolved.

The review by Judge Jeremy Fogel in San Jose finding "implementation of lethal injection is broken, but it can be fixed" has put executions on hold in California, the nation's most populous state. Lawyers for a condemned California inmate had argued that lethal injection constitutes 'cruel and unusual' punishment barred by the U.S. Constitution.

The court proceedings found shortcomings in past executions, including in 2005 when guards could not connect a back-up intravenous line to Stanley "Tookie" Williams, the ex-Crips gang leader who later wrote anti-gang books.

"I wasn't here, don't have all the details of it," Tilton, who took office last year, said of past problems. "I read some testimony that caused me some concern."

"Clearly we have to reassess our process."

Tilton also said he concurred with the chief justice of California's Supreme Court who told Reuters in December 2005 that the state should speed its execution process.

"We have people who are over 20 years on Death Row and that's not prompt justice," Tilton told Reuters. "We've got to find a way to provide those folks their due process. It seems to me that something short of 20, 25 years is more appropriate."

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