A casualty of the delay in finalizing a state budget may be California's effort to resume executions any time soon.

The summer-long budget stalemate put a freeze on completing a new death chamber at San Quentin prison - a footnote to the budget deal that likely will postpone the ongoing legal challenge to the state's lethal injection procedure, possibly into next year. State prison officials have cited the construction of a new execution chamber as one key improvement that should help satisfy a San Jose federal judge's concerns that the current lethal injection process is "broken."

In court papers filed last week, lawyers for death row inmate Michael Morales asked U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel to push back scheduled hearings in the case from early October to May, in large part because the new chamber may not be completed until later this year. Fogel has already indicated he wants to tour the new facility when it is completed.

The California attorney general's office opposes any further delays in the case, which began in February 2006 when Morales was on the brink of execution for the 1981 rape and murder of a 17-year-old Lodi girl. Fogel granted Morales a reprieve to consider the argument that California's lethal injection process risks exposing a death row inmate to cruel and unusual punishment, an argument being replicated across the country.

In court papers, Deputy Attorney General Michael Quinn called the request for a delay until May


"unnecessary and unreasonable." The state urged Fogel to go forward with the planned October hearings and, if necessary, tour the new chamber later when it is completed to keep the case pressing forward.

In December, Fogel put executions on hold indefinitely because he ruled the state's lethal injection procedure is so flawed it risks violating the ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger then devised a series of reforms earlier this year to address the judge's concerns, and Morales' lawyers are now challenging whether those proposed fixes are sufficient.

The state maintains that one key fix is an upgraded death chamber to replace San Quentin's antiquated old execution unit. With the budget now on the governor's desk, prison officials expect to be able to finish the new chamber about 10 weeks after they get construction resumed. The work was already under way this spring when it was halted by Democrats who objected to the fact that Schwarzenegger failed to get approval for the spending.

Seth Unger, a spokesman for the prison system, said early November is now an estimate of when the chamber might be done.

Fogel, who already held an unprecedented round of hearings last year and toured San Quentin, scheduled another hearing in October to give the two sides a chance to present evidence about the governor's proposed reforms. But if the case is delayed, it would keep California's execution machinery on hold well into next year, if not longer - whatever Fogel decides, his final ruling is expected to be appealed, ensuring a prolonged legal battle.

There are a number of death row inmates who would have execution dates looming if the courts uphold California lethal injection method. That includes David Allen Raley, the death row inmate closest to execution from Santa Clara County. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled in September to decide whether to hear Raley's last ditch appeal - if that bid fails, his legal options would be exhausted and the state could set an execution date within months.

Contact Howard Mintz at hmintz@mercurynews.com or (408) 286-0236.