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Crime & Justice

With Prop 34 defeated, when will California's next execution happen?

CDCR officials built a new lethal injection facility at San Quentin State Prison, but executions remain on hold in California.
CDCR officials built a new lethal injection facility at San Quentin State Prison, but executions remain on hold in California.
AP Photo/Eric Risberg

California voters reaffirmed their long-standing support for the death penalty, rejecting Proposition 34 on Tuesday by about 6 percent.

What happens now?

The state houses 726 inmates on Death Row (226 of them from Los Angeles County, where Proposition 34 enjoyed considerable support). Currently, 13 death row inmates have exhausted all their appeals and are eligible for execution.

But executions are not likely to resume soon. 

Capital punishment has been on hold in California since 2006, when a federal judge halted the execution of Michael Angelo Morales because the state's lethal injection method violated the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The judge who issued that ruling pointed to numerous issues with California's lethal injection protocol: poor training for execution team members; a cramped makeshift execution room that had been converted from San Quentin State Prison's old gas chamber; and mistakes in the use of an anesthetic that's one of three drugs in the lethal injection "cocktail" could inflict extreme pain on a dying inmate.

In the years since, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has made moves to change the execution process. It invested in a new $835,000 lethal injection chamber and rewrote its lethal injection procedure. Now an attendant must shake the inmate to ensure that he or she is asleep before proceding with painful, death-inducing drugs. 

Yet, two years later, executions have not resumed.

A Superior Court judge in Marin County – where San Quentin prison is located and the state's Death Row for male inmates – threw out the rewritten lethal injection protocols, saying that the state violated its own rule-writing procedure by not adequately considering public comment. The federal court case that originally halted executions in the state is on hold while the state case gets sorted out.

Meanwhile, California doesn't keep sufficient stocks of the execution drugs its current protocol requires. Two of three of the lethal injection drugs called for in the current protocol are no longer available in the United States. 

CDCR officials say at the direction of Governor Jerry Brown, they've considered a new procedure with a single drug that might satisfy the courts. During a now-defunct case brought earlier this year in L.A. County that was meant to force the state to set execution dates, an expert for the CDCR testified that correctional officers at San Quentin had trained in and tested a one-drug procedure at the lethal injection chamber. 

CDCR has not introduced that protocol as an official regulation. A state lawyer estimated that the official process for codifying any new protocol would take about 10 months. The state is also arguing in a separate court case that it shouldn't have to follow such an administrative procedure.