Article from The Sacramento Bee, May 13, 2007:
Battle over death chamber: Governor plans to release a plan this week to get the chamber back on track.
By Andy Furillo – Bee Capitol Bureau
It started out as kind of a remodeling project, where corrections officials would convert 2,800 square feet of a San Quentin State Prison visiting room into a state-of-the-art execution chamber.
The initial $400,000 cost was minimal, almost microscopic by state standards. It would take only four months to build, and it would help the state comply with a federal judge who found the old killing room wanting.
Still, the project slammed into controversy, with administration officials contradicting each other, a state senator accusing the Governor’s Office of trying to “deceive” the Legislature, and death penalty supporters blasting opponents for waging a rear-guard attack to forestall executions — a charge the opponents didn’t deny.
As if the emotion surrounding capital punishment wasn’t enough, the dispute over California’s death chamber project has other factors adding to the intensity — big money politics and a federal court hammer that, for now, has stopped the state’s lethal injection process. The Schwarzenegger administration wants to get it going again and is submitting a plan Tuesday to that effect.
For openers, the death chamber project began around the time the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was about to add 53,000 prison and jail beds. If the corrections agency couldn’t get the execution chamber done right, some lawmakers’ thinking went, how could it pull off a $7.9 billion building program?
Then there was California’s lethal injection process, which U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel found unconstitutional. The death chamber figured significantly in his findings, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pledged to come up with a fix by his self-imposed deadline of May 15 — Tuesday — to get the death penalty up and running again.
Following an at-times heated legislative hearing on the project last Tuesday, the capital spin machine revved into high gear.
“This cannot turn into something that will undermine the death penalty in California,” gubernatorial spokesman Adam Mendelsohn said.
“This has got the fingerprints of the governor all over it,” said state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, who conducted the informational hearing.
Fogel established the chamber as a death penalty battleground when he ruled from San Jose on Dec. 15 that California’s lethal-injection protocol violated the Eighth Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment. He found the process deficient in five areas, including the space in San Quentin’s old gas chamber where the state was executing the condemned by lethal injection.
The judge ruled that the facility “was not designed for lethal-injection executions.” Executioners had to operate from an area too far away and too poorly lit “to permit effective observation” of the condemned inmate’s final moments, he wrote, while the chamber’s anteroom was too crowded “with prison officials and other dignitaries” to do the job right.
Fogel gave the state 30 days to get back to him with a proposed fix. Just three days later, Schwarzenegger announced that the state would prepare a new, five-point protocol to bring itself into compliance. One item called for a recommendation on improving “the death penalty facility.”
Corrections officials came back with a plan to convert part of a visiting room at San Quentin into a new death chamber. Estimated cost: $399,000, to be paid for with redirected funds. The figure came in below a $400,000 threshold that would have required legislative approval.
Construction began March 5. More than a month later, on April 10, staffers from the Legislative Analyst’s Office visited San Quentin to inspect its medical operation. To their surprise, prison officials told them that a new death chamber was being built. Back in Sacramento the next day, LAO criminal justice director Dan Carson said, “We made sure the appropriate legislative staff were made aware that this project was proceeding.”
Following public disclosure of the project April 12 at a legislative hearing, Romero and other Democratic leaders ripped the plan as an attempt to circumvent their authority to oversee the budget. Schwarzenegger ordered the project shut down on April 20.
Corrections Secretary Jim Tilton said then that the governor took the action because “he’s very concerned about maintaining good communication with the Legislature” and also because the project’s cost by then had exceeded the $400,000 limit. The secretary also said neither he nor the governor had been aware that construction had begun until after the LAO’s April 10 visit.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Corrections Undersecretary Bud Prunty said he attended meetings with gubernatorial staffers about the project and that they were aware the construction had begun.
Mendelsohn identified the staffers as the legal affairs secretary, Andrea Hoch, and the Cabinet secretary, Dan Dunmoyer. Mendelsohn said neither knew construction had been started.
The gubernatorial spokesman said the controversy over when administration staffers knew that construction had begun was missing the key point.
“The issue for the administration was getting the chamber into compliance with the judge’s order, and we were clear that that needed to happen as quickly as possible,” Mendelsohn said.
But Romero said Tuesday after the hearing, “A death chamber just doesn’t get built on its own,” adding she believes the Governor’s Office directed the construction.
“We need for the governor to come clean on who directed this, who authorized this and at what point,” she said. “We need to really understand their intent to evade and deceive.”
Romero said her problem is with the administrative branch and that the issue isn’t so much about the death penalty.
But supporters of capital punishment say the entire episode is being orchestrated by opponents trying to block its application.
“If they want to outlaw the death penalty, start gathering signatures,” Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, R-Orange, said in a prepared statement. “Do not use legislative hearings as bully pulpits to subvert the will of the people and circumvent state law.”
Jim Lindburg, a lobbyist for the Friends Committee on Legislation, was one of several death penalty opponents who spoke against the project at Tuesday’s hearing. He said the new death chamber undermines the message conveyed by Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders that they’ve embarked on a new, rehabilitation-centered era of correctional policy in California.
“We think this shows the emphasis of CDCR will always be about punishment,” Lindburg said in an interview Thursday.
He made no apologies about death penalty opponents seizing on the chamber project to hold up the next lethal injection.
“CDCR is trying to find a humane way to commit an inhumane act, and we just don’t think that’s possible,” Lindburg said.
Friday, the Schwarzenegger administration created a “strike team” to expedite construction for the new jail and prison beds. Romero said if the death chamber project is any indication, the group is in for a tough task.
“I think we have to question the oversight, the accountability, the truthfulness of this administration and this department in handling and properly managing the taxpayers’ dollars,” she said. “I think from what we have found, we should have serious concerns about money that is allocated to this department.”