Court finds broad right for witnesses to executions
CALIFORNIA–A federal District Court in San Francisco has released a written opinion supporting its May 1996 oral ruling that the state may not prevent witnesses from observing executions from start to finish.
In his late-February opinion, Judge Vaughn Walker broadened the earlier ruling by specifying that the witnesses must be able to view the procedure from before the inmate is confined to the apparatus used, in this case a gurney, until shortly after death. The original order did not mention the confinement to the gurney, instead saying “from at least just before the time the intravenous tubes are inserted.” The judge cited a centuries-old “tradition of public access to executions.”
The California First Amendment Coalition and the Society of Professional Journalists sued the warden of San Quentin State Prison and the Director of the Department of Corrections after the execution of William Bonin at San Quentin in late February 1996. The American Civil Liberties Union represented the journalism organizations.
Bonin was the first inmate to be executed by lethal injection in the state of California. For his execution, witnesses were allowed to enter the observation room only after Bonin had been strapped to the gurney with the intravenous tubes inserted. After several minutes, the witnesses were informed that Bonin was dead. Later, officials described Bonin’s last words and reported that they had had difficulty inserting the IV needles.
The media organizations argued that this second-hand information was unsatisfactory. They maintained that witnesses were unable to determine whether Bonin had been sedated, and saw little to indication that anything actually occurred during the time they were in the observation room.
The Department of Corrections argued that executions take place within prison walls and the First Amendment does not guarantee press access to prison facilities or inmates. However, the California Penal Code requires that “certain people, including at least twelve reputable citizens” be present at every execution.
Walker also stressed that capital punishment indisputably represents the ultimate exercise of state power and that the people must have confidence that the state wields its authority within the boundaries proscribed by law. It follows that the public’s right of access includes a right of media access, the judge held.
Walker said that although prison officials’ concerns about professionalism and the protection of the identities of prison personnel are understandable and laudable, they do not constitute a compelling state interest sufficient to justify the witness access restrictions when compared to the imposition of capital punishment.
Following Judge Walker’s May 1996 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) rejected the state’s emergency request to block Walker’s order while it appeals his decision. (California First Amendment Coalition v. Calderon; Media Counsel: David Fried, San Francisco)