A Marin County judge on Tuesday put up the latest roadblock to the state's effort to execute its condemned killers, issuing a brief ruling that for now bars prison officials from moving forward immediately with executions. The order came the same day that state lawyers argued in federal court that nothing should stand in the way of setting execution dates soon for six death row inmates.
The new legal developments signal that the state is trying to kick-start the death penalty in California, despite repeated setbacks in the state and federal courts that have effectively shuttered San Quentin's death chamber since the January 2006 execution of Clarence Ray Allen.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation adopted new lethal injection procedures this summer, hoping to resolve state court orders that found the previous rules had been put in place in violation of state regulations, as well as a San Jose federal judge's concerns that the prior lethal injection method risked cruel and unusual executions.
But the new regulations now face new legal challenges. Lawyers for death row inmates filed a lawsuit in Marin County Superior Court, saying they still don't comply with California rules for enacting new regulations. And U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel is now evaluating whether he is free to consider if the new lethal injection procedures, and San Quentin's new death chamber, address concerns that inmates may suffer an inhumane death from the state's three-drug cocktail of lethal drugs.
Fogel first put California executions on hold in February 2006, when he delayed the execution of condemned murderer Michael Morales to consider a challenge to lethal injection. Fogel has been unable to fully resolve the case while the state crafted new lethal injection procedures and the U.S. Supreme Court considered the issue in a case out of Kentucky. But he recently issued an order asking whether he can get the Morales case moving again.
In court papers filed Tuesday, Attorney General Jerry Brown's lawyers argued that the state "now has presumptively valid regulations for carrying out lethal injections," and is prepared to defend those if they are challenged in the case being heard by Fogel. State lawyers also disclosed plans to ask a judge to set an execution date later this week for Morales, as well as imminent requests for execution dates for five other inmates who've exhausted all their legal appeals.
But with the Marin judge's order, the federal case and those executions may be put back on hold.
A spokeswoman for Brown said the office plans to appeal the order immediately to permit the state to resume lethal injections, but lawyers for death row inmates say the various legal challenges must proceed first.
"I don't see how they can proceed at this time," said Sara Eisenberg, a San Francisco lawyer who represents death row inmate Mitchell Sims in the lawsuit challenging the most recent version of the lethal injection procedures.