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Media Sue California Over Access to Executions

The state of California wants to use unconstitutional rules to hide the most gruesome aspects of inmate executions from the public, three news outlets claim in a new lawsuit. 

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The state of California wants to use unconstitutional rules to hide the most gruesome aspects of inmate executions from the public, three news outlets claim in a new lawsuit.

The Los Angeles Times, KQED and San Francisco Progressive Media Center, which publishes, sued the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation on Wednesday, challenging newly approved lethal injection policies at San Quentin State Prison, the only state facility that conducts executions.

“The courts have ruled that executions are public proceedings,” said plaintiffs' attorney Ajay Krishnan of Keker, Van Nest & Peters in a statement Wednesday. “This means that California may not administer its executions from a back room, outside of the view of the press and the public.”

Under new rules finalized March 1, lethal drugs must be prepared and administered outside of public view in an "infusion control room" while the inmate is located in a separate "lethal injection room," which the public can see. The rules also require curtains be closed on the viewing room if an inmate has not died after receiving a third dose of lethal drugs.

The plaintiffs claim shielding parts of the execution process from public view harms the integrity of the process and prevents independent observers from scrutinizing "whether executions are fairly and humanely administered."

“The press serves as the eyes of the public,” said plaintiffs' co-counsel Linda Lye of the ACLU of Northern California. "If the state is going to conduct executions, the media has a right to attend, observe, and report on all aspects of the procedure, especially because the new protocol could give rise to complications and botched executions.”

The state completed construction of a new lethal injection room at San Quentin in 2008 for $853,000, according to the complaint.

In January, the state changed its policies so death row inmates are executed with an injection of a single chemical, pentobarbital or thiopental. Previously, executions were carried out via three separate chemical injections.

If witnesses are able to view the infusion control room, they could figure out which lethal drug was used. That's because pentobarbital requires three syringes of 2.5 grams while thiopental requires five syringes containing 1.5 grams each, according to the lawsuit.

“Public access to such information about the manner by which convicted criminals are put to death enhances the proper functioning of the execution process and promotes public confidence in the integrity of the criminal justice system," the 15-page complaint states.

The news outlets argue the state's new execution policies violate their First Amendment right of access to public proceedings.

They seek an injunction barring the state from denying the public access to all aspects of executions.

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Terry Thornton said the state has not yet been served with the lawsuit and declined to comment.

Only 13 men have been put to death in California since capital punishment was restored in the state in 1978, according to the Los Angeles Times. The last execution took place in January 2006.

As of August 2017, there were 747 inmates awaiting execution: 725 men and 22 women.

In 2016, California voters approved a ballot measure to speed up executions in the state.

This past August, a divided California Supreme Court upheld the voter-backed mandate to speed up executions but also held that a 5-year deadline to decide death penalty appeals is not mandatory.

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