The legal showdown over California's lethal injection method has been pushed back to later this year, when a San Jose federal judge plans to tour San Quentin's new death chamber and hold two days of hearings to consider whether the state should be allowed to resume executions.
The latest delay in the lethal injection challenge ensures that there will be no executions in California this year and, given the likelihood of time-consuming appeals, it raises doubts over whether any death row inmates will face firm execution dates in 2008.
During a hearing this afternoon, U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel scheduled a Nov. 19 trip to San Quentin to examine the new execution chamber, which is under construction and expected to be completed earlier that month. Fogel also postponed a planned October hearing in the case to Dec. 10.
Fogel put executions on hold indefinitely last December, when he ruled that California's lethal injection procedure is so flawed it risks violating the ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Fogel's decision came after a lengthy round of hearings last fall and a tour of San Quentin.
The lethal injection case began in February 2006, when condemned killer Michael Morales was on the brink of execution for the 1981 rape and murder of a 17-year-old Lodi girl. Fogel put Morales' execution on hold to consider the lethal injection issue, which has been raised in death penalty states across the country.
In his ruling last year, thejudge outlined a series of problems, ranging from San Quentin's antiquated execution chamber to a lack of training for execution team members and faulty safeguards during executions. This spring, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger responded by ordering prison officials to come up with new procedures and training programs to meet Fogel's concerns so the state can resume executions.
The governor also called for the construction of a new execution facility on prison grounds.
Morales' lawyers maintain the state's new protocol remains inadequate to ensure humane executions, prompting Fogel to schedule another round of hearings. In the meantime, the state's execution machinery has ground to a halt for the more than 650 inmates on death row.
Fogel made it clear this afternoon that he wants to finish the case, particularly given that his ultimate ruling is sure to be appealed.
"This court is very interested in getting this proceeding concluded," he told lawyers in court.
Contact Howard Mintz at firstname.lastname@example.org or (408) 286-0236.