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Thursday, June 04, 2015

Will Executions in California Resume?

Apparently, a new effort to revive executions in California is under way. The Los Angeles Times reports

The settlement of a lawsuit brought by crime victims’ families requires Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration to unveil a new method of lethal injection this year. That method, which Brown officials said would be a single-drug lethal injection, will be subject to public comment and court challenges.

If the plan survives the scrutiny and litigation, it still could be stymied by difficulty in obtaining drugs needed for executions. Manufacturers, pressed by death penalty opponents, are refusing to sell drugs for executions. Compounding pharmacies, another possible source of the drugs, also could have trouble procuring the necessary chemicals to make them.

Still, the settlement remains the first breakthrough in a years-long hiatus in executions in California. It is likely to reignite the debate over capital punishment in the state and test the resolve of the Brown administration. Brown personally opposes capital punishment but defended the death penalty when he was attorney general.

The text of the settlement can be found in full here.

A few comments spring to mind. First, having read Austin Sarat's Gruesome Spectacles, and knowing that most death penalty litigation for the last few years focuses on the potential for botched executions, I can't imagine that a new chemical will not usher a new era of litigation. I doubt executions will pick up as a result, but that is, of course, a possibility. This might be why, at least as of last year, three-drug executions persisted.

Second, in the face of all this tinkering with the machinery of death, it's astounding to see the Brown administration cling to the death penalty, rather than be hard at work to abolish it. Any new iteration of the death penalty brings in its wings nothing but problems, litigation, concerns, and costs. Let go of the death penalty and you let go of the problem.

And third, the legal settlement is in a lawsuit brought by victims' families. But not all victims are the same, and many victims' families oppose the death penalty. I don't want to discount the feelings of vindication and closure that an execution may bring to the family members of a loved one. But it is unfair, and untrue, to assume that pushing for the death penalty is a monolithic pro-victim move.

Posted by Hadar Aviram on June 4, 2015 at 09:29 AM | Permalink


Nice post. I think it's time we think about what we're trying to accomplish with the death penalty. If you look at the polling data, the death penalty today isn't about deterrence, or incapacitation. It's all about retribution, and so much of that is victim-centered. But the criminal justice system is about more than vindicating victims' preferences, whichever way they may cut. There are broader institutional considerations, and when you're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars per execution, it is puzzling why the state of California continues to insist upon spending its resources in that way.

Posted by: Corinna | Jun 5, 2015 10:21:45 AM

I agree with the three thoughts. As to the last one, family members of victims were on both sides when Nebraska was deciding whether or not to end the death penalty. Some victims very well might find the never-ending process of tinkering (which will be drawn out, since there will always be close cases, doubts, problems & since life is at stake, judges et. al. will feel compelled to be extremely careful) burdensome. Simply sentencing the murderer to a long prison term would for some be better.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 4, 2015 10:08:26 AM

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