In a panel discussion before the Marin County Bar Association on Wednesday, lawyer John Grele said the state continues to rely on a method of execution less humane than the chemicals veterinarians use to euthanize dogs and cats.
While doctors put animals "to sleep" using a single chemical, corrections officials use a combination of three to execute criminals. One of these chemicals, pancuronium bromide, is a paralyzing agent, which stops all muscle movement except the heart. Grele, who represents death row prisoner Michael Angelos Morales, has argued that use of the drug makes it difficult to tell whether prisoners are in pain during their execution.
"Applying a paralytic prevents us from seeing the death, so we can't tell whether the inmate is suffering," Grele said. "That takes away our ability to see what we have decided to do as a society."
In response to those arguments, a federal judge has ordered California to conduct a thorough review of its lethal injection methods. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said the state will present a
revised execution procedure by May 15. The case has attracted national interest, with officials in other states calling for qualified medical supervision of executions.
"It's rare that we have the opportunity to talk about an issue as important as the one we're talking about today, which has huge local significance and is equally important on a national scale," said Jeffrey Lerman, president of the Marin bar.
The death penalty remains popular with 63 percent of Californians, according to a 2006 Field poll. Yet Grele said he believes fewer people would support state-sponsored executions if they understood what the process was really like.
"The way in which the state kills has not been subjected to a great deal of scrutiny," Grele said. "The more light we shed on this government procedure, the more questions arise about it."
In investigating Morales' case, Grele found that state executioners were not trained anesthesiologists, and that they were not prepared to deal with problems that took place during executions, such as difficulties inserting an intravenous drip during the 2005 execution of Stanley "Tookie" Williams.
"The prison system deserves the scrutiny it's getting, and not just about lethal injections," Grele said. "A lot of the problems at San Quentin, such as health care and overcrowding, translate into problems with lethal injections as well."
Not everyone is prepared to empathize with convicted killers. But Rabbi Lavey Derby, who joined Grele for Wednesday's panel discussion, said providing a humane death is a moral imperative.
"Why should we care if criminals receive a less painful death?" asked Derby, a member of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. "To fulfill the biblical commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. If that commandment is applied - as it must be - to people who commit the most heinous acts, it requires that the means to carry out executions must respect the dignity of the individual, even if that individual would not have treated others that way."
Episcopal priest Bruce Bramlett agreed, pointing out that Christians define themselves as the followers of an innocent man - Jesus - who was executed for his crimes by the state.
"Christians believe that no one is beyond redemption," said Bramlett, former rector at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in San Rafael. "Our basic value system is that everyone is made in the image of God, and that in each of us exists a spark of the divine."
Bramlett said his experiences observing executions at San Quentin reinforced his belief that the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment.
"I watched one execution - the state wouldn't claim that it was botched, but it was," Bramlett said. "It took well over 40 minutes for that man to be killed. That isn't right."
Grele said he believes veterinarians and those who euthanize terminally ill patients provide more humane care for their clients than do state corrections officials. But he's not about to recommend their practices to the state.
"My role is not to advocate for a better way to kill my client," Grele said.
Wednesday's meeting of the Marin bar was moderated by Independent Journal opinion editor Doug Bunnell and held at the Seafood Peddler restaurant in San Rafael.
Read more San Rafael stories at the IJ's San Rafael page.
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