California and the Death Penalty


The world contains extremely dangerous and evil people who cannot be deterred by threat of incarceration. I’m not talking about the average gang murder or robbery gone bad. I am talking about the people who rape infants to death; who kidnap, torture, rape and murder children; who target police officers in the line of duty; who kill not just one, but a half dozen or dozen or more innocent victims in serial and mass murders.

Such people are the reasons why California still needs a death penalty.

If the punishment for one murder is life in prison, how do you punish someone for three murders or five murders? How do you deter a prisoner serving a life sentence from killing a fellow inmate or guard if there is no additional penalty? How can no-additional-punishment for additional murders be justice for victims?

You may be wondering what happened to California’s death penalty. Seventeen of the 750 inmates on death row have completed all their appeals and are eligible to be executed. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that the state does not have an execution protocol. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has not bothered to enact a new regulation so that executions can be resumed after the last protocol was invalidated by a state court judge.

Despite the 2014 vote by a majority of Californians to keep the death penalty, the CDCR and the Governor’s office have effectively been ifying the law by failing to enact a regulation by which that law can be enforced. While the CDCR details the history of the death penalty on its website, it fails to acknowledge that a draft of a protocol for the single-drug method of execution to which the state was requested to switch by a federal court Judge has been sitting on the desk of the CDCR for over a year now, gathering dust.

It is easy to see why GovJerry Brown would be reluctant to put the state in a position to resume executions. With 17 inmates having exhausted all appeals, it would put Gov. Brown in the awkward position of being an anti-death penalty governor who executed the most condemned inmates of any governor in state history. He can’t even grant most of them clemency since the State Constitution prohibits the Governor from granting clemency to a person “twice convicted of a felony.”

So, instead of carrying out the law, the Governor is asking the Legislature for $3.2 million to open nearly 100 more cells on death row.

A lawsuit filed by the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation on behalf of crime victims, Bradley Winchell and Kermit Alexander, pressed the issue and led to a settlement that will hopefully put the state in a position to resume executions in a year or two. The last execution in California occurred in 2006. The settlement requires CDCR to begin promulgating an execution protocol within 120 days of the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Glossip v. Gross.

The Supreme Court ruled that the sedative midazolam can be used without violating the Constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. It should be noted that some people opposed to the death penalty support physician-assisted suicide, which then begs the question: how can an execution drug be considered cruel when it’s the same drug sometimes used by doctors for assisted suicide and regularly used in surgical procedures?

There are still hurdles to clear before the state stops dragging its feet and implements the voter approved death penalty.

All state regulations are subject to the Administrative Procedures Act(APA) which requires that the proposed regulation undergo a public vetting process that permits the public to comment on the proposed regulation. This concept makes sense when you are talking about a regulation covering business or industry. It allows the affected business to provide input about how the new rules would affect them and lobby for changes. But in the context of an execution protocol, allowing public commentary and requiring the department to provide a “meaningful response” to every single comment, creates a logjam.

The last time CDCR put an execution protocol though the APA process they were flooded with over 30,000 comments from death penalty opponents from all over the country.

Marin County Superior Court Judge Fay D’Opal is the one who ruled the last protocol invalid. She said that CDCR did not “meaningfully” respond to every single one of the 30,000 comments and that CDCR failed to explain why it did not adopt the single-drug execution method recommended by its own expert.

If California does manage to get past the APA and get a regulation enacted, there will be few remaining barriers. The United States Supreme Court decisions in Baze v. Rees and in Glossip v. Gross have rejected challenges to the three-drug protocol formerly used by most states including California and the new two-drug protocol being used in Oklahoma. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has already denied stays to single drug executions in other states within its jurisdiction.

Once California has an execution protocol in place, there is little the Governor or the Attorney General can do to thwart the implementation of the law. After all appeals are final, jurisdiction over these cases returns to the local District Attorney and the local courts. It is the local District Attorney and court who then schedule an execution date.

CDCR has no more power to refuse compliance than it has to refuse to accept a sentenced prisoner for housing.

It is important to remember that only a jury of one’s peers can impose death—not the police, not the District Attorney, not the judge. Jury verdicts are rendered by the citizens of the community because they have the strongest interest in keeping their communities safe and protecting residents from the criminals who would prey on them.

The people of this state voted to keep the death penalty. The Governor and the Department of Corrections have an obligation to honor the will of the voters and impose the law of this state.

Michele Hanisee is Vice President of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys. She can be contacted at The view and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of ADDA which represents nearly 1,000 Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys. Your comments are welcome. If you would like to receive future ADDA blogs, please click here.

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