Judge tours San Quentin's lethal injection room

February 8, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
The federal judge who stopped executions in California five years ago, toured the state's new death chamber on Tuesday at San Quentin prison. He will eventually make a decision on whether the state can resume executions.

The tour really was a kind of on-site court hearing, complete with court reporter trailing the judge. This is one more step on the long legal road to deciding whether lethal injections can begin again in California.

The new $900,000 death chamber was inspected by federal judge Jeremy Fogel on Tuesday. He was joined by lawyers, prison officials, and several print and radio reporters.

"I would say a lot of the questions focused on the delivery of the drugs themselves because this is a big issue," said Julie Small from Southern California Public Radio.

The reporters were there as observers only. Fogel was the one asking questions in great detail as he toured the facility room by room.

"He went through cabinet by cabinet, refrigerator, verifying where drugs are kept until an execution takes place, the amounts of each of three drugs that are injected," said Carol Williams from the Los Angeles Times.

Fogel halted the execution of murderer Michael Morales five years ago on grounds the state's lethal injection protocol could be cruel and unusual punishment. There has not been an execution at San Quentin since.

"In the old death chamber the execution team was unable to view or properly monitor the inmate so a lot of the questions seemed to be on, 'How long will the lines be? Which holes do they go through in the wall?'" said Small.

The judge's decision on whether executions can resume could still be months away.

"He did say at the end of the hearing that he wanted to wrap this up as soon as possible, nonetheless he's had this case for six years and repeatedly said that," said Paul Elias from the Associated Press.

Demonstrators outside the prison gates were there protesting the money spent on the new death chamber when the state's social services budget is losing millions.

"The governor is proposing to cut $750 million from our budget. This is going to destroy services for persons with developmental disabilities. When we go back to our governor and back to our legislators, they say, 'Well, where do you want us to cut?' We think we found a place to cut," said John Rumsey from Marin Ventures.

There are more than 700 prisoners on California's Death Row. Even if the judge eventually clears the way for lethal injections, there could be other legal obstacles, including lawsuits challenging the use of one of the three drugs used in the state's protocol.