May 13, 2007
Battle over death chamber
Governor plans to release a plan this week to get the project back on track.
By Andy Furillo, The Sacramento Bee
It started out as kind of a remodeling project, where corrections officials
would convert 2,800 square feet of a San Quentin State Prison visiting room
into a state-of-the-
The initial $400,000 cost was minimal, almost microscopic by state
standards. It would take only four months to build, and it would help the
state comply with a federal judge who found the old killing room wanting.
Still, the project slammed into controversy, with administration officials
contradicting each other, a state senator accusing the Governor's Office of
trying to "deceive" the Legislature, and death penalty supporters blasting
opponents for waging a rear-guard attack to forestall executions -- a charge
the opponents didn't deny.
As if the emotion surrounding capital punishment wasn't enough, the dispute
over California's death chamber project has other factors adding to the
intensity -- big money politics and a federal court hammer that, for now,
has stopped the state's lethal injection process. The Schwarzenegger
administration wants to get it going again and is submitting a plan Tuesday
to that effect.
For openers, the death chamber project began around the time the California
Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was about to add 53,000 prison
and jail beds. If the corrections agency couldn't get the execution chamber
done right, some lawmakers' thinking went, how could it pull off a $7.9
billion building program?
Then there was California's lethal injection process, which U.S. District
Judge Jeremy Fogel found unconstitutional. The death chamber figured
significantly in his findings, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pledged to
come up with a fix by his self-imposed deadline of May 15 -- Tuesday -- to
get the death penalty up and running again.
Following an at-times heated legislative hearing on the project last
Tuesday, the capital spin machine revved into high gear.
"This cannot turn into something that will undermine the death penalty in
California," gubernatorial spokesman Adam Mendelsohn said.
"This has got the fingerprints of the governor all over it," said state Sen.
Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, who conducted the informational hearing.
Fogel established the chamber as a death penalty battleground when he ruled
from San Jose on Dec. 15 that California's lethal-injection protocol
violated the Eighth Amendment's protections against cruel and unusual
punishment. He found the process deficient in five areas, including the
space in San Quentin's old gas chamber where the state was executing the
condemned by lethal injection.
The judge ruled that the facility "was not designed for lethal-injection
executions." Executioners had to operate from an area too far away and too
poorly lit "to permit effective observation" of the condemned inmate's final
moments, he wrote, while the chamber's anteroom was too crowded "with prison
officials and other dignitaries" to do the job right.
Fogel gave the state 30 days to get back to him with a proposed fix. Just
three days later, Schwarzenegger announced that the state would prepare a
new, five-point protocol to bring itself into compliance. One item called
for a recommendation on improving "the death penalty facility."
Corrections officials came back with a plan to convert part of a visiting
room at San Quentin into a new death chamber. Estimated cost: $399,000, to
be paid for with redirected funds. The figure came in below a $400,000
threshold that would have required legislative approval.
Construction began March 5. More than a month later, on April 10, staffers
from the Legislative Analyst's Office visited San Quentin to inspect its
medical operation. To their surprise, prison officials told them that a new
death chamber was being built. Back in Sacramento the next day, LAO criminal
justice director Dan Carson said, "We made sure the appropriate legislative
staff were made aware that this project was proceeding."
Following public disclosure of the project April 12 at a legislative
hearing, Romero and other Democratic leaders ripped the plan as an attempt
to circumvent their authority to oversee the budget. Schwarzenegger ordered
the project shut down on April 20.
Corrections Secretary Jim Tilton said then that the governor took the action
because "he's very concerned about maintaining good communication with the
Legislature" and also because the project's cost by then had exceeded the
$400,000 limit. The secretary also said neither he nor the governor had been
aware that construction had begun until after the LAO's April 10 visit.
At Tuesday's hearing, Corrections Undersecretary Bud Prunty said he attended
meetings with gubernatorial staffers about the project and that they were
aware the construction had begun.
Mendelsohn identified the staffers as the legal affairs secretary, Andrea
Hoch, and the Cabinet secretary, Dan Dunmoyer. Mendelsohn said neither knew
construction had been started.
The gubernatorial spokesman said the controversy over when administration
staffers knew that construction had begun was missing the key point.
"The issue for the administration was getting the chamber into compliance
with the judge's order, and we were clear that that needed to happen as
quickly as possible," Mendelsohn said.
But Romero said Tuesday after the hearing, "A death chamber just doesn't get
built on its own," adding she believes the Governor's Office directed the
"We need for the governor to come clean on who directed this, who authorized
this and at what point," she said. "We need to really understand their
intent to evade and deceive."
Romero said her problem is with the administrative branch and that the issue
isn't so much about the death penalty.
But supporters of capital punishment say the entire episode is being
orchestrated by opponents trying to block its application.
"If they want to outlaw the death penalty, start gathering signatures,"
Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, R-Orange, said in a prepared statement. "Do not
use legislative hearings as bully pulpits to subvert the will of the people
and circumvent state law."
Jim Lindburg, a lobbyist for the Friends Committee on Legislation, was one
of several death penalty opponents who spoke against the project at
Tuesday's hearing. He said the new death chamber undermines the message
conveyed by Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders that they've embarked on
a new, rehabilitation-
"We think this shows the emphasis of CDCR will always be about punishment,"
Lindburg said in an interview Thursday.
He made no apologies about death penalty opponents seizing on the chamber
project to hold up the next lethal injection.
"CDCR is trying to find a humane way to commit an inhumane act, and we just
don't think that's possible," Lindburg said.
Friday, the Schwarzenegger administration created a "strike team" to
expedite construction for the new jail and prison beds. Romero said if the
death chamber project is any indication, the group is in for a tough task.
"I think we have to question the oversight, the accountability, the
truthfulness of this administration and this department in handling and
properly managing the taxpayers' dollars," she said. "I think from what we
have found, we should have serious concerns about money that is allocated to
Source : The Sacramento Bee