Timeline on death chamber explained

Times Staff Writer

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s staff was aware that a new death chamber was under construction at San Quentin State Prison well before he ordered a halt to the project last month, a corrections official said Tuesday.

Documents released at a state Senate committee hearing showed that construction began March 5, two weeks before it was approved by the Department of Finance.

And Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation chief James E. Tilton acknowledged in testimony that the project will cost $850,000 to complete -- more than twice the original estimate.


Tilton said he never read U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel’s December ruling that the way the state was executing people was unconstitutional. Because of that, he said, he believed a key assistant who said the judge had ordered that a new death chamber be built.

Schwarzenegger halted construction after a controversy arose when state legislators expressed dismay that the project had been launched without their approval.

The project came to public attention April 12, nearly four months after Fogel issued a stinging decision about the way California conducted executions.

Tilton said it was his understanding that department officials had not consulted the Legislature because the project was going to cost $399,000. State law requires legislative approval of any project that costs $400,000 or more.

Legislators, including state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), said they thought corrections officials were trying to evade legislative oversight and scheduled a hearing.

On Tuesday, during and after a three-hour hearing, Romero said her initial suspicions were confirmed and even magnified after testimony.

Tilton said he thought the state was facing a court-ordered May 15 deadline to build a new death chamber when, in fact, that time frame had been established by state officials.

Romero and another legislators expressed disgust with the way corrections officials have handled the death chamber issue, saying they violated state laws and gave answers that were evasive or unresponsive.

This “points out that black hole” of government where an important issue can disappear in a government bureaucracy and then actions are taken “based on false premises” and “flat out lying,” said Romero, a liberal Democrat and death penalty critic.

She said state officials had taken a “damn the torpedoes; we’ll do what we want” approach to correcting problems described in Fogel’s decision, which identified several major deficiencies in how the state implements the death penalty. Fogel said the state’s application of its lethal injection procedure violated the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

“It’s sickening” that state officials “are not following appropriate procedures,” said state Sen. Mike Machado (D-Linden), a moderate who does not oppose the death penalty.

Representatives of the legislative analyst’s office learned inadvertently about the project April 10 while visiting the prison. At the time, the governor’s office made no formal comment. A week later, Schwarzenegger ordered Tilton to halt the project. On April 20, Tilton acknowledged that the state already had spent $725,000.

At Tuesday’s hearing of the Senate Public Safety Committee, Kingston W. Prunty, an undersecretary of the Corrections Department, said members of the governor’s staff, as well as members of the California attorney general’s staff were at meetings where a decision was made to launch the construction.

Prunty, who sounded hesitant and nervous, said the decision to set the deadline for completion “was not mine. It came from a meeting with representatives of the governor and the attorney general. We asked for a little more time.”

Prunty declined to say who else was at the meeting.

At another point he said that the project had been discussed with the governor’s staff before “the April surprise.”

After the hearing, Aaron McLear, a spokesman for the governor, said “we knew” the Corrections Department “had a plan to build a new lethal injection facility. We assumed they were doing so by following protocol. Once it was discovered ... that they were in violation of protocol, the governor immediately ordered the project to stop.”

Later in the day, Romero said she was skeptical about that response.

“It’s clear from today’s hearing this was directed from the higher-ups,” she said. “I watched Prunty testify. He was nervous.... He did not look well. What he said made sense. Otherwise, it’s as if this death chamber immaculately got built. No one is the daddy of it. I don’t believe that.”

Tilton and McLear said state officials still intend to present a plan to correct deficiencies in the death penalty system to Fogel on Tuesday. They also said they intend to present the Legislature with a formal plan for a new death chamber.

Michael Morales, who filed the lethal injection challenge last year, was condemned to death for the 1981 murder of a Lodi teenager. His February 2006 execution was halted because of the challenge.

California’s protocol, like that of three dozen others states, calls for a three-drug cocktail.