Bid for public discussion on executions
Newspapers file to prohibit secretive alteration of system The Chronicle and other newspapers urged a federal judge Wednesday to deny Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's request that the state be allowed to keep secret the expert advice it receives and deliberations it undertakes before proposing changes in how it executes prisoners.
Schwarzenegger's suggestion that the state make public only the proposed changes and not the discussions or consultations leading to the revisions would "shut Californians out of the debate over the death penalty,'' attorney Karl Olson said in papers filed in U.S. District Court in San Jose.
Olson represents The Chronicle's owner, Hearst Corp., as well as the Los Angeles Times and McClatchy Newspapers, publisher of the Sacramento Bee, Modesto Bee and Fresno Bee.
The state is under orders from U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel to revamp its execution procedures and minimize the risk that lethal injection will subject an inmate to a slow and agonizing death.
In a ruling Dec. 15, Fogel said lethal injections are carried out by poorly selected and trained staff in dimly lit and overcrowded conditions at San Quentin State Prison, with inadequate monitoring and record keeping and few safeguards against a botched execution.
He extended a stay of execution that he originally issued last February for Michael Morales of Stockton, convicted of raping and murdering 17-year-old Terri Winchell in 1981. The ruling left all other executions in California on hold.
Schwarzenegger ordered changes in prison staff screening and training, and filed papers with Fogel on Jan. 15, saying the state would prepare a full set of revisions by May 15. Lawyers for the governor and the prison system asked Fogel to keep their deliberations secret from Morales' lawyers and the public.
"The review of the lethal injection protocol will require frank debate and candid consideration of policy alternatives,'' state lawyers said. That internal debate would be harmed, they said, by disclosure of the outside advice that officials receive and the options they consider.
The proposed secrecy order was criticized by Morales' lawyers and by the newspapers, which Fogel allowed into the case to contest the sealing of documents. The judge has scheduled a hearing for Feb. 20.
In Wednesday's filing, Olson noted that Florida Gov. Jeb Bush established an 11-member commission on the same day as Fogel's ruling to meet publicly and propose changes in that state's execution methods. Olson said Bush's action refuted any claim by California officials that "the review of the lethal injection procedure can flourish only in the dark.''
He also cited California voters' approval in 2004 of Proposition 59, a state constitutional amendment requiring the meetings of public agencies and the writings of public officials to be open to public scrutiny.E-mail Bob Egelko at email@example.com.