Friday, 13 April 2007

State's New Death Chamber To Surprise Lawmakers

(AP) SACRAMENTO Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration last month quietly began building an elaborate new death chamber at San Quentin State Prison in an attempt to past muster with a federal judge who ordered a moratorium on the state's executions.

News that the administration authorized the facility -- which will have three separate viewing rooms, a holding cell, and a large area for executioners to prepare deadly cocktails for lethal injections -- drew immediate criticism from Democratic lawmakers and budget analysts who said they were kept in the dark about the expenditure.The administration began building the facility in March after prison officials determined they could construct the chamber for $399,000 -- just under the $400,000 limit that would have triggered a financial review by state lawmakers.

"We have not reached any judgment that the administration violated state rules, but we are trying to understand the full scope and plan the administration has" for the facility, said Dan Carson, criminal justice director for the state's nonpartisan legislative analyst's office.

"Obviously this is very close to the $400,000 limit."Carson and other analysts discovered the new facility last week on a scheduled tour of the Marin County prison.

Reached by phone late Friday, Assembly Budget Committee chairman John Laird, D-Santa Cruz, said he was unaware the death chamber was being constructed and said he would look into the matter."I guess we'll have to see if there are any $1,000 cost overruns," he said. "This appears to be just barely within their authority but it's a complete surprise and you would think with something that's this major they would consult with people in the Legislature in some way."

Seth Unger, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said there was no attempt to hide the project. Rather, he said, the administration decided to begin building it to meet the urgent need created by the court decision in December.

"A new death chamber is being constructed as part of the governor's plan to revive California's lethal injection protocol," Unger said.The administration hopes to complete construction by May 15, when U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel has scheduled a hearing on whether the state may be allowed to resume executions, Unger said."It wasn't necessarily a line item issue in the budget because the judge hadn't ruled" at the time legislators passed the budget last year, Unger said.In December, the judge ruled the state's executions were cruel and unusual punishment after four days of hearings revealed prison guards were inadequately trained to conduct them.

The hearings also revealed lethal injection drugs were not properly accounted for, and at times were not properly mixed as executioners worked in the state's 69-year-old death chamber. The crowded, dimly lit room had been designed as a gas chamber."Our facilities management team looked at it and decided we could renovate the space using the minor capital outlay project," Unger said. The governor's finance team signed off on the plan, he added.

According to Carson and others present on the tour, however, the facility is not so much a renovation of the existing room, but an annex about 50 yards away from the current death chamber.Construction crews have already framed walls in the facility, Carson said.

Compared to the old facility, which had one semicircle space for witnesses, the new facility will have windows looking in on the execution table from three areas for witnesses, Carson said.

One room will be for the media, and the other two for separate groups of witnesses, Carson said.While it's yet unclear how brightly the facility will be lit, Carson said the new death chamber has much more room for workers to prepare drugs to administer to inmates.

The facility will also have a holding cell for prisoners where they can be visited by family and spiritual advisers.

Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, R-Orange, chairman of the Select Committee on Prison Construction and Operations, disputed that lawmakers had been kept in the dark about the project. He said prison officials told him during his last visit to the prison on March 14 that they were replacing the death chamber."Clearly the gas chamber was designed to be a gas chamber. It wasn't designed for lethal injection," Spitzer said in a telephone interview. "There's not enough room."He dismissed criticism that the department was trying to hide spending for the new chamber by holding costs under reportable levels."They've had a mandate all along to provide a constitutionally acceptable chamber," Spitzer said. "If the department wasn't proceeding full speed to construct a constitutionally permissible death chamber, it would be remiss in its duties."

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