California keeps sentencing prisoners to death, but none get executed

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While juries throughout California continue to dole out the death penalty, legal challenges to the process and a nationwide shortage of the drug used for the lethal injections are creating an ever-growing population in the nation’s largest death row.

The Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday that California is running counter to the national trend away from the costly and litigious sentences, per corrections officials and a national capital punishment database.

A growing trend, many areas around the country have stopped pursuing the death penalty because legal challenges to the verdicts often go on for years, and smaller cities and counties can’t afford the legal costs.

The cost of maintaining prisoners on death row is also a deterrent in many jurisdictions, as the bill for supporting  inmates on death row is about three times as much as for other inmates. Those other inmates cost an average of $44,000 annually according to the bipartisan California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice.

California now has 717 inmates on its death row. A federal judge has halted executions since 2006 on the basis that the punishment violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The state has newly-revised execution procedures in place and is awaiting a decision from the U.S. District Court if the executions can move ahead.

This year, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation had scheduled its first execution in nearly five years, on Sept. 30. The San Jose judge overseeing the review of the new procedures, U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel, stopped the execution of rapist and murderer Albert Greenwood Brown, saying the imminent expiration of the state’s last dose of sodium thiopental wasn’t an acceptable reason for the execution. Brown is one of seven death row inmates that have exhausted all appeals and could be executed as soon as the judge approves the new procedures and rules on three pending lawsuits.

Previously, Judge Fogel halted the execution of convicted murderer Michael A. Morales in February 2006 after requiring that physicians made sure that he was fully anesthetized before administering the lethal dose of sodium thiopental. However, since doctors are prohibited from participating in executions under the ethics rules of the American Medical Association, the execution was cancelled.

Even after the courts give the go-ahead for the punishment to resume, the changing political climate in California may present another hurdle. Incoming governor Jerry Brown and incoming attorney general Kamala Harris are both known to personally oppose capital punishment on moral grounds, although during their campaigns, they said they would uphold the death sentence if elected.

California residents still support the death sentence, by a 66 percent majority according public opinion polls, a bit higher than the nation’s 64 percent majority in an October Gallup poll.

Los Angeles Times

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