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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.

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Two executions in Kentucky were postponed this year when it was found the state had just one dose of the powerful anesthetic thiopental sodium for three convicted murderers scheduled to be put to death. The state eventually decided to execute the defendant in the oldest case. An execution scheduled for Oct. 26 in Arizona may be postponed because the state can’t get thiopental sodium in time.

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At the heart of the resistance to the death penalty are those who see inconsistencies in the trial process.

“California’s is just one more example of many in what is a failed government program to execute people,” says John Holdridge, director of the ACLU's Capital Punishment Project in Durham, N.C. He ticks off a litany of recent studies showing problems with innocent people being convicted. A study released last year by the Equality Justice Institute that shows that over the past decade, 23 capital cases in Alabama have been reversed after it was proven that prosecutors illegally excluded black people from jury service, he points out.

He also highlights an investigation last year by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission that showed that in over 200 cases, errors were made involving blood tests, seven of which were death penalty cases, including three in which the defendant had already been executed.

"At one end of the spectrum is that we are finding more and more reasons why we don’t always get the conviction right, and at the other end states are really not equipped to pay for it, creating real tension on the system,” says Cassy Stubbs, a senior staff attorney for the Capital Punishment Project.

"The main question is whether we should be executing people at all, especially if there is any ambiguity as to whether they are guilty of the crime, ” says Dr. Allison Cotton, an associate professor of criminology at the Metropolitan State College of Denver. “Ambiguity should automatically result in a life sentence,” she says.

Cotton says the validity of the capital punishment system is suspect. She points out that over 200 people have been wrongfully convicted and had their convictions overturned with DNA evidence in recent years. "If the system that sentences people to death is faulty at all, the death penalty should be abolished because we can’t take it back once a person has been executed.”

The California Supreme Court’s decision gives several other condemned inmates and Brown a reprieve until at least early 2011.

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