Federal judge allows California to move forward with first execution in 4 years

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[JURIST] A federal judge ruled [opinion, PDF] Friday that the state of California can move forward with plans to execute a convicted rapist and murderer later this week. Albert Brown was convicted [NYT report] of raping and murdering a 15-year-old girl in 1982 and is scheduled to be executed on Wednesday. Brown petitioned to join a lawsuit filed by death row inmate Michael Morales [JURIST news archive], challenging the state’s lethal injection process, and sought a stay of execution. Brown argued that California’s new lethal injection regulations [15 CCR 3349, et seq.] should be fully reviewed by a court of law before any executions are permitted to take place. California had been enjoined from performing any executions since 2006, when the state was ordered to reconsider its lethal injection process [JURIST reports] because it was found to potentially cause undue pain and suffering in violation of the Eighth Amendment [text], which protects against cruel and unusual punishment. Judge Jeremy Fogel of the US District Court for the Northern District of California [official website] stated that “there is no way” the court could perform a thorough analysis of the regulation five days before the scheduled execution, as the new regulations are “three years in the making.” Fogel allowed Brown to intervene in the suit, but denied his motion for a stay, stating that Brown failed to meet his burden of proving the execution would place him under a demonstrated risk of undergoing unconstitutional pain and suffering. Fogel stressed that his opinion was narrowly focused on the legal question presented and had nothing to do with the death penalty as moral or political issue:

The Court is constrained to point out once again that the instant litigation is not about the wisdom or morality of the death penalty or the tragic suffering of the families and loved ones of those who commit capital crimes. The passions that surround these issues are deep and entirely understandable, but they have little to do with the limited legal question presented here. … The Court is painfully aware that however it decides a case of this nature, there will be many who disagree profoundly with its decision. The moral and political debate about capital punishment will continue, as it should.

California rights groups, such as the local branches of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Death Penalty Focus [official websites] have voiced their opposition [press release, PDF] to the court’s opinion, arguing that executions should not be performed while three other lawsuits regarding the state’s lethal injection process are still pending. Brown has appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

The battle in California over proper lethal injection procedures has been ongoing since 2006 when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger [official website], in response to court rulings regarding the postponement of Morales’ execution and a virtual moratorium of all executions in the state, ordered [JURIST report] his administration to “correct court-identified deficiencies in California’s lethal injection protocol to ensure the death penalty procedure is constitutional.” Schwarzenegger submitted a proposal in 2007 [JURIST report] regarding changes to the state’s protocol, including authorization to construct a new execution chamber. California’s new lethal injection protocol became effective on August 29, 2010.

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