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California sentences more prisoners to die while executing none

California continued to buck a nationwide trend away from costly and litigious death sentences in 2010, adding 28 new prisoners to the country’s most populous death row, according to correction officials and a national database on capital punishment.

Los Angeles County alone condemned eight defendants to death this year, the same number as Texas, and Riverside County sent six men to await execution, officials said.

The state’s death chamber was idle for a fifth year, though, because of protracted legal challenges of lethal injection practices and a nationwide shortage of the key drug used in the three-injection procedure.

Whether executions will resume in 2011 could be decided early in the new year, when a federal judge is expected to decide if the state’s newly revised lethal injection procedures conform with a constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

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But with 717 condemned inmates on California’s death row, the legal tug-of-war over capital punishment is expected to intensify, experts say, especially with incoming Gov. Jerry Brown and Atty. Gen.-elect Kamala Harris known to personally oppose executions on moral grounds. Both politicians, however, have said they will uphold death sentences in their new jobs.

Nationwide, the number of executions dropped by about 12% this year, from 52 in 2009 to 46, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit organization opposed to capital punishment that tracks death sentences. Texas maintained its perennial role as the state with the most active death chamber, with 17 executions, down from 24 last year, according to the center’s database. Of the 35 states that practice capital punishment, 12 carried out the ultimate penalty at least once this year.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation scheduled its first execution in nearly five years for Sept. 30 but had to call it off when federal judges intervened to point out that court review of the new execution regimen hadn’t been completed. The San Jose judge overseeing the review, U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel, also ruled that the imminent expiration of the state’s last supply of sodium thiopental wasn’t a justifiable reason to go ahead with the execution of rapist and murderer Albert Greenwood Brown.

Brown is one of seven death row inmates who have exhausted all appeals and could be subject to execution if Fogel clears the new methods after reviewing arguments filed in at least three pending lawsuits.

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The soaring costs of keeping prisoners on death row for decades has provided ammunition for death penalty opponents who have failed to erode majority support for capital punishment with moral arguments. Research provided to the bipartisan California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice showed it costs at least three times as much for detention and legal representation for capital inmates as for other state prisoners; the latter average $44,000 per person annually.

Nationwide, juries and judges handed down at least 114 new death sentences this year, close to last year’s 111 and fewer than half of the 300-plus annual totals in the late 1990s.

Still, in California, capital punishment enjoys majority support in public opinion polls, though its backing is down from 78% two decades ago to about 66% now. Nationally, an October Gallup poll recorded 64% of those surveyed in favor of the death penalty.

“What could be operating here is that the death penalty is not seen as real in California, as there hasn’t been an execution in almost five years,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “In jurors’ minds, they can vote for a death sentence without the worry that 10 years later some new evidence [of innocence] might emerge. In California, that inmate is not going to be executed in that time and probably is never going to be executed.”

Death sentences have dropped markedly in other areas of the country, especially in smaller cities and counties that can’t afford the legal costs of defending the verdicts through years of appeal, Dieter said.

Riverside County Dist. Atty. Rod Pacheco, a supporter of capital punishment, said cost shouldn’t be a consideration, that district attorneys are “in the job of making sure justice gets done.” His prosecutors pursue a death penalty when the circumstances of the crime warrant it, he said, calling the penalty not only morally justified but also necessary as a deterrent and a means of dealing with criminals “so unbelievably dangerous that they cannot even live in our society in a correctional facility.”

The office of Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who lost a close race for state attorney general to Harris, “is complying with established law when it fulfills its duty to seek the penalty in appropriate cases,” said spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons. She said the office reviewed nearly 1,500 cases in the last decade in which the defendants were eligible for the death penalty because of aggravated circumstances and sought it in 113 instances, or fewer than 10% of cases where it could have been applied.

California has executed 13 inmates since capital punishment was restored in 1976, two in San Quentin State Prison’s gas chamber and 11 by lethal injection. The last execution was in January 2006.

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Fogel halted the February 2006 execution of murderer Michael A. Morales by requiring the assistance of physicians to ensure that the sodium thiopental had fully anesthetized the prisoner before the second injection induced paralysis and the third caused cardiac arrest. But doctors are prohibited from participating in executions by ethical guidance of the American Medical Assn., and Morales’ execution was called off when Fogel’s conditions couldn’t be met.

The judge conducted hearings later that year and was told of concerns that as many as six of the California prisoners executed by lethal injection may not have been fully unconscious after the first shot.

carol.williams@latimes.com


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