Why California OK'd, then delayed first execution in years
California was set to execute a man convicted in 1982 of rape and murder on Thursday, but a shortage of one of the drugs used in lethal injections was cause for a further reprieve, courts ruled.
California’s on-again, off-again execution of a convicted murderer spotlights several issues in America’s capital punishment system, say national observers. The death penalty is currently legal in 35 states.Skip to next paragraph
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Changing public attitudes over the death penalty and states' economic concerns are joined now by scarce availability of the drugs used for lethal injections as reasons for calling off scheduled executions. Several studies showing faulty crime lab procedures and racial or economic bias in court sentencing add to the calls for a halt to capital punishment, experts say.
The execution of Albert Brown, convicted in 1982 of rape and murder, was scheduled for Thursday at 9 p.m. but was canceled after state and federal courts attempts to put him to death before the prison’s supply of lethal chemicals expired at midnight. The execution would have been California’s first since 1996, when a federal judge imposed a moratorium on them, holding that the state’s lax framework for lethal injections was creating an unacceptable risk of botched executions.
In the interim, California revised its procedures and training policies and built a new death chamber, which state officials claim complies with standards for lethal injections established by a 2008 US Supreme Court ruling.
US District Judge Jeremy Fogel of San Jose granted a stay of Mr. Brown’s execution late Tuesday, saying he needed time to decide whether the new policies had repaired the shortcomings he found in his 2006 ruling. His reasoning was that California’s apparent desire to execute Brown before its supply of the drugs needed to do it expired was not a justification for a hurried review. The state was appealing the stay when the California Supreme Court issued an order Wednesday prohibiting the execution.
“The back and forth of this case stems from the underlying question of whether certain procedures violate the eighth amendment banning cruel and unusual punishment and whether the cocktail of chemicals constitutes gratuitous pain – but that sidesteps the issue of whether people really have the stomach for the death penalty anymore,” says Robert Pugsley, professor of law at Southwestern Law School. “This case raises questions about the purpose of the death penalty in today’s society.” [Editor's note: The original version misnamed Southwestern Law School.]
Brown's case brings up an anomaly in capital punishment: the nationwide shortage of several widely-used anesthetics. The competition for the drugs runs into anesthesiologists who want them for operations.