When the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation set out to revamp its lethal injection procedure to clear up legal concerns, the public was invited to comment.
This January, responses came from around the world. The following is a summary of some of those 13,000 comments received by prison officials.
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Thousands of comments were based on a general form letter that addressed three or four points. These letters came from Mississippi, Seattle, San Diego, Belgium and by fax from Vienna, Austria. Their four concerns were:
- Females, who are housed at a women's prison, will be transported to the death chamber up to six hours before the scheduled execution. Opponents argued for more time, because those hours are critical for attorney and family meetings.
- Witnesses don't get equal treatment. Victims' family members get unlimited seating, with overflow allowed to view the execution from a remote location by a video feed. The inmate is restricted to five witnesses.
- Chaplains and spiritual advisers aren't clearly defined. A state-paid chaplain may be with the inmate for the last five days, while a private "spiritual adviser" is only allowed the last six hours. The private adviser must be approved by the warden, but there are no guidelines regarding who is acceptable.
- While the new protocol sticks to the same three-drug formula
California has previously used, Ohio has since used a single
anesthetic to avoid possible complications. The three-drug method
came under scrutiny because there is no guarantee that an inmate is
completely unconscious before two other drugs are administered, and
they could be extremely painful, thus violating the Constitution.
That last point is what Sen. Tom Harman has addressed in proposed legislation that is expected to be heard in a Senate public safety committee next month.
Harman, who also submitted a letter to prison officials, proposed that California follow Ohio's example and simply use one anesthetic.
"Every hospital, every surgery suite uses it," the Republican Huntington Beach resident said in a phone interview. "It's a common anesthetic; you give it to the person and there's no pain. If you increase the dosage, it becomes fatal."
He noted that Ohio's supreme court ruled the drug constitutional, and that there have been no problems with it.
"Why reinvent the wheel when this works?" he said.
Harman acknowledged that his proposal would mean having to restart the law change process, but he said it would ultimately clear up the matter permanently.
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Some people had personal experiences with executions.
- Elk Grove resident Bill Babbitt witnessed the May 4, 1999,
execution of his brother, who was convicted of murdering an elderly
South Sacramento woman. Babbitt actually turned his brother in to
police, and he felt everyone should be treated fairly, including
witnesses to executions.
"When I witnessed my brother's execution, I was forced to stand on the riser because no seating was provided, though seating was provided for the victim's witnesses. Witnessing an execution is difficult, even traumatic, for any witnesses, and seats should be provided for all, especially the elderly and infirm," he wrote. "Families of the executed are innocent people going through an intensely traumatic experience, and all care must be taken to address the harm they suffer."
- Bud Welch, of Oklahoma City, was the father of a 1995 Oklahoma
City bombing victim, for which Timothy McVeigh was executed. Welch
serves as board president of the group Murder Victims' Families for
Human Rights, of which Babbitt is also a member.
"Timothy McVeigh's execution did not bring me any peace, and I don't believe the death penalty is the best we can do for victims or the best we can do as a society," he wrote.
Regarding California's proposal, Welch had concerns about a public address system inside the execution chamber. It will be turned off after the inmate's final statement, which Welch felt is wrong because there will be no way of knowing if the inmate cries out in pain or if any of the execution team members say anything.
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While the majority of letter writers were against the entire death penalty law, a few wrote to support it.
- Andrew Arko, a self-described California native and resident,
faxed a letter in which he said the death penalty helps negotiate
plea deals. His brother is a hostage negotiator and said it's a
useful bargaining chip.
He also expressed doubts that the process could cause pain: "Anybody who has had an operation and has been put under, knows you don't feel anything."
- Joseph Juden, who lives in Southern California, suggested using
an oxygen chamber and simply removing the air. He said he had
altitude training in the Navy, in which he was placed in an oxygen
chamber, given a mask and then given a task to complete while
oxygen was sucked out of the chamber, to simulate air at 30,000-
"My recollection was that I did very well on the task. In reality, I did very little, almost nothing. Suddenly, I had my mask on, but did not know how it got there. Had someone not replaced it quickly, I would have been dead. I can attest that there is absolutely no pain, nor any indication of anything wrong," he wrote.
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Though many people simply expressed their opinions on the death penalty, some did address the actual policy change.
- Death row inmate William Dennis focused on a part of the
protocol that says an inmate will be in waist restraints while
having his last visits. In prison since 1988 for a murder four
years earlier, Dennis argued that the warden should be allowed to
determine whether the restraints are necessary.
"It is a trying time as it is for family members to have to meet an inmate at this late date, but to compound the mental anguish seeing a love one tied up in waist chains isn't needed," he wrote in a typed letter from San Quentin, home for all male death row inmates.
- Inmate Barry Williams, on death row for a March 1982 crime,
asked that cameras be installed in the death chamber so that the
public may "bear witness to these actions."
He also asked that inmates be allowed to see a chaplain from the private sector: "A state employed chaplain has not reached true spiritual development to assist human beings in ascension and divine revelation. Otherwise he/she would not be going along with the taking of human life."
- The spiritual adviser was also at issue for 36-year-old Richard
Valdez, on death row for an April 1995 gang crime in which five
people were killed.
As a "practitioner of the Native American Faith," Valdez said he will need a sweat lodge, pipe ceremony and smudging before his execution, and that the new proposal doesn't take that into consideration.
He also asked for more seating because his "extremely large" family won't fit into five seats allowed for an inmate's family.
Viewer seating was one of several points addressed by many writers. The proposed law allows five seats for the inmate's family, while the victims' family members have more seats and may also view it by television feed from a remote location.
- Regarding witnesses, 24-year death row inmate Barry Williams
wants cameras in the death chamber to record the process. "It is
highly contradictory to the interest of the people for the state to
kill in its name and not allow the people to bear witness to these
actions," he wrote.
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Some writers picked out minute things to address.
- Alice Schaffer Smith, a Palo Alto attorney, noted a few grammatical and typographical errors, including one instance that "contains the word "he" and thus is not sex-neutral."
- Death row inmate Douglas Scott Mickey wrote one full page and
focused only on female prisoners, and the issue of when they should
be transported to the execution chamber. His solution: 48 hours
before the scheduled death, rather than six hours.
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Some comments merely discussed capital punishment, sometimes in rather blunt terms.
- On a postcard featuring a photo of the Pacific Ocean and a Salinas postmark, the anonymous writer briefly expressed views on the death penalty, including: "Do away with it!!"
- "The DA's office says no one has the right to take another
human being life. Only God. … Your (sic) not in any way God and God
did not in any way give you or any one else permission to take
another life," San Quentin inmate Eloy Loy handwrote in cursive.
"The state of California has the balls to use the excuse well it's
not us, it's the voters … if the people of California tell you and
everyone else in Sacramento to shoot yourself in the head because
they voted for it, are you going to do it? No. Bottom line, it's
stupid, dumb. All this death penalty is nothing but revenge."
Convicted in Los Angeles for a May 1996 crime, Loy said in his five-page letter that he is innocent, and knows at least one other innocent man on death row.
- Kevin Cooper, convicted of four murders in the Chino Hills
area, expressed frustration that the procedure didn't seem to have
changed much. His execution was halted three hours, 42 minutes
before it had been scheduled, in order to do more DNA testing.
He wrote in a typed letter from San Quentin that the new policy doesn't seem to "make the process any more humane, to violate our rights any less."
- Fellow inmate Stevie Lamar Fields, who has been on death row
since August 1979, also thought the new procedure only had "minor"
changes. "You people are 'minor' indeed! Change the real problem,
lethal injection!" he wrote.
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Among the well-known names was actor Mike Farrell, who also used the form letter so many had sent. He also added his own concur for the mental well-being of those tasked with carrying out the "ritualized killing process."
"Even the Nazis recognized what they called 'the burdening of the soul' of those charged with taking the lives of their victims," wrote Farrell, who has attended multiple anti-death penalty rallies at San Quentin.
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More than 10,000 comments were the result of a form letter online. Senders filled out a few basic fields, such as name and address, then clicked "submit your comment" to send an e-mail to the state. It automatically sent the 223-word letter to state officials.
The campaign focused on the cost of the death penalty, including years of appeals, with the slogan, "California can't afford the death penalty."
This story was updated at 9:20 a.m. March 15, 2010, to correctly identify Bud Welch.