California's death penalty has been in limbo since 2006, when a federal judge stayed the execution of Michael Morales, who was sentenced to death for the brutal 1981 murder and rape of 17-year-old Terri Winchell. The judge was fearful lest the state's three-drug lethal injection protocol would cause Morales undue pain. Since then, a number of states have switched to a one-drug protocol. Why hasn't California? The answer could be that Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris don't want the death penalty to work.
Brown and Harris are personally opposed to the death penalty, but when they campaigned for office in 2010, both pledged to carry out the law. They're not exactly knocking themselves out to do so.
In 2009, Ohio adopted a one-drug protocol for executions. By administering a lethal dose of barbiturates, Ohio made it harder for frivolous appeals to keep the state from enforcing its laws. Several states followed suit, including Washington. Washington is important because the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit refused to stay a single-drug execution there in 2010.
California officials still are sticking with a three-drug protocol mired in legal challenges. Sacramento has been so ineffective that Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley asked a Los Angeles Superior Court judge to make the state order the single-drug executions of multiple murderers Tiequon Cox and Mitchell Sims.
LA County Deputy District Attorney Michele Hanisee told me that Cooley acted because other states have been "rapidly moving forward with executions while our Department of Corrections sits on its hands and does nothing."
Believe it or not, a California deputy attorney general actually showed up in court to fight Cooley's effort -- in the name of Brown's Department of Corrections. The California Department of Justice argued that Cooley's gambit, if successful, would put Corrections in an "impossible position" because of Marin Superior Court Judge Faye D'Opal's injunction against executions pending new regulations. Hanisee counters that D'Opal doesn't have the authority to stop all executions. Besides, D'Opal faulted the state's rejection of a one-drug protocol.
"The murderer and the state's chief law enforcement officer were both on the same side," observed a disgusted Michael Rushford, president of the tough-on-crime Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.