Ensuring California's death penalty system remains in limbo for the foreseeable future, a state appeals court on Thursday scrapped the state's latest attempt to update its lethal injection procedures.
In a 28-page ruling, the 1st District Court of Appeal found that state prison officials failed to comply with administrative rules when crafting new regulations more than two years ago.
The unanimous decision of the three-justice panel sends California back to the drawing board, unless the Brown administration takes the case to the California Supreme Court and keeps more than 700 Death Row inmates on an indefinite reprieve.
The appeals court upheld a Marin County judge, who faulted the prison department for a variety of procedural missteps, including offering no public explanation for why San Quentin officials opted to continue with a three-drug lethal injection method instead of a single-drug execution option being embraced by a number of other states.
State officials have indicated in court papers they are exploring the single-drug option, which involves putting condemned inmates to death with one dose of a sedative. Ohio, Washington and Arizona are among the states that have moved to that option to short circuit legal challenges to the three-drug method.
A prison spokesman said state officials are reviewing the ruling but have not decided how to proceed.
Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said the ruling was not surprising, although he disputed the court's finding that violating the administrative rules justifies halting executions. Switching to the single-drug method should thwart further legal challenges to California's lethal injection procedures, he said.
However, even if the Brown administration moves to single-drug executions, prisons will again have to comply with the administrative procedures to institute the new method, a process that can take more than a year. And states across the country, including California, are struggling to assemble supplies of execution drugs because of resistance from drug manufacturers and other problems.
California has had a moratorium on executions since 2006 as a result of legal challenges to its execution procedures in both the state and federal courts. Death Row has more than 725 inmates awaiting execution, including more than a dozen who have exhausted their legal appeals and would be eligible for immediate execution. Several of those inmates have mounted the lethal-injection court challenges.
In response to a federal judge's concerns, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and current Gov. Jerry Brown have both tried to overhaul the state's lethal injections, revising training for execution team members and building a new execution facility at San Quentin. But the state's updates have been blocked twice for violating the administrative code, for the most part by failing to offer adequate public review of the proposed changes.
State Justice J. Anthony Kline, writing for the appeals court on Thursday, found California again violated the administrative rules in 2010, rejecting the state's argument that more than 20,000 comments were submitted and public hearings were held to consider its new lethal injection procedures. The appeals court concluded that the public did not receive all the necessary information, particularly surrounding the prison system's decision to stick to the three-drug method, which has been challenged because of concerns it can result in a cruel and painful death.
"The public that participated in the (prison system's) rule-making process was not so fully informed," the appeals court wrote.
Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz