Why California wants single-drug executions

California proposed a single-drug lethal injection on Friday. If passed, it would reinstate the death penalty after a near 10-year hiatus. 

Eric Risberg/AP/File
This Sept. 21, 2010, file photo shows the death chamber of the new lethal injection facility at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif. On Friday, Nov. 6, 2015, California proposed allowing corrections officials to choose one of four types of barbiturates to execute prisoners on death row, depending on what’s available, as states deal with a nationwide shortage of execution drugs.

California has not executed any prisoners since 2006, but with 749 inmates on death row, the Golden State has the most convicts in limbo in the country. Now, a new proposal could restart the state's capital punishment.

For nearly ten years, California has refrained from lethal injection after a US District Court banned three-drug executions, ruling that if one of the drugs failed to work, it posed a risk of cruel and unusual punishment: "California’s lethal-injection protocol – as actually administered in practice – create[d] an undue and unnecessary risk that an inmate will suffer pain so extreme that it offends the Eighth Amendment."

This legal limbo created its own challenges, prompting a 2014 lawsuit from family members of a murder victim. The ruling in that case required California to come up with a new lethal injection protocol by the end of November.

Under the new proposal, the state would administer a single lethal dose of either amobarbital, pentobarbital, secobarbital or thiopental – drugs that other states struggled to find suppliers for in recent years. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation says the drug selection would be made on a "case-by-case basis, taking into account changing factors such as the availability of a supply of chemical."

Lethal injection was first used in the United States in 1982 and in California in 1996, after lethal gas usage was ruled unconstitutional. Advocates of the new proposal say the single-injection method reduces pain and thus abides by the Eighth  Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

California is just one of 32 states that employ the death penalty. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, eight states have used a single-drug method in past executions, and six others have announced intent, but have never actually employed the method. The rest of the states follow a three-drug protocol.

Supply problems have arisen as some European manufacturers of these drugs have refused to sell them to US prisons for executions, most notably Lundbeck, previously one of the largest providers of pentobarbital.

Last month, Ohio declared it would delay all executions until January 2017, due to its inability to procure an adequate supply of drugs.

The growing drug shortage is prompting some states to legalize alternative methods. Tennessee allows use of the electric chair, Oklahoma uses lethal gas, and Utah recently reinstated the firing squad for cases where the state cannot obtain lethal injection drugs in time.

If California passes their new measure, which could take upwards of a year to approve, other states may follow suit.

"A court-approved execution protocol after nine years of delay is a major victory for the majority of Californians who support the death penalty," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, "particularly for families of murder victims who have been waiting for justice."

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