Marin and the
Governor Brown’s request only adds
costs to a futile endeavor. BY JIM WOOD
By state law, San Quentin
is the only prison in
California where executions
can take place.
“cruel and unusual punishment,” therefore
unconstitutional, and executions in California
ceased. But five years later, after the court had
partially reversed itself, voters approved Prop.
17 and capital punishment in California was
reintroduced. Between then and now, 13 con-
demned murderers have been executed, while
56 have died of old age or suicide.
In 1994, lethal injection replaced lethal gas
as San Quentin’s standard method of execu-
tion, and in 1996, William Bonin was the first
in California to die that way, followed by 10
more men over the next decade. In 2006, a U. S.
District Court judge halted a lethal injection
over concerns that improper application of the
three-drug protocol would amount to cruel
and unusual punishment by causing intense
pain. As a result, by court order only licensed
medical professionals were legally permitted to
perform executions — but the state was unable
to find doctors willing to do them. So a de facto
moratorium on capital punishment has been in
effect in California for the past nine years.
It should also be noted that the three drugs
in question are no longer sufficiently available
in the United States because the manufactur-
ers refuse to supply them for the killing of
humans. Consequently, California has turned to
a British source for an adequate supply of one of
the drugs, sodium thiopental, according to the
Death Penalty Information Center, a nationwide
database. However, in the current scenario our
state would essentially need to adopt a one-drug
procedure for executions. Three years ago,
Governor Brown called for such a change, but
the method cannot be implemented until tests
prove it is suitable for executing convicted mur-
derers without “excruciating pain.”
In 2011, a reputable study concluded that
since 1978, when California voters said yes to
capital punishment, the system has cost tax-
payers $4 billion, not including the governor’s
recent request for $3.2 million. Thus, capital
punishment is not only barbaric, it’s inher-
ently dysfunctional. That’s my point of view.
HERE’S A NE WS item relating to Marin County: Governor Jerry Brown is requesting $3.2 million to convert 97 existing cells to safely house death row
inmates at San Quentin State Prison. Yes, this
is an extension of San Quentin’s death row.
By state law, San Quentin is the only prison in
California where executions can take place and,
while its death row’s maximum capacity is 715,
currently there are 746 condemned murders
awaiting execution — with 20 more expected
to arrive every year for the foreseeable future.
Obviously, there’s a logjam. Regardless, in 2012,
Californians voted to retain the death penalty,
52 percent to 48 percent. Hopefully, the issue
will reappear on the 2016 ballot and this time
the death penalty can be repealed.
Briefly, here is the history of capital punishment in California: in the mid-1800s, firing
squads at a variety of locations would fatally
shoot convicted killers. But inaccurate riflemen
caused slow and painful deaths via loss of blood.
So death by hanging was adopted, and on March
3, 1893, at San Quentin, Jose Gabriel was hanged
for committing a murder. Theoretically, death
by hanging is quick and painless, provided the
convicted person’s neck is instantly snapped.
But if the noose is too short, death by strangulation is slow and painful, and if the rope is too
long, decapitation could result. So, in the 1920s,
the electric chair was introduced as a means of
killing convicted killers.
However, by the 1940s, that method had electrically set several condemned prisoners’ hair
and scalp on fire before they died. Therefore, gas
chambers using cyanide became the preferred
method of execution. And soon after World War
II, Sam Shockley and Edgar Thompson were
gassed to death at San Quentin.
In 1972, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled
that all state death penalties as imposed were
The vie ws and opinions expressed in this article are
those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the
policy or position of Marin Magazine and its staff.