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Court recognizes public right to witness executions

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    NMU         CALIFORNIA         Newsgathering         Aug 7, 2002    

Court recognizes public right to witness executions

  • Federal appellate court panel said California holds a longstanding tradition of making information, including what goes on in the state’s execution chamber, available to its citizenry.

A federal appellate court panel on Aug. 2 struck down a California prison policy restricting the viewing of lethal injection executions at San Quentin State Prison, determining that the public has a right to view them “from the moment the condemned is escorted into the execution chamber.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) held that California’s citizens enjoy a longstanding tradition of openness and that they have a right to know how the state conducts executions.

“To determine whether lethal injection executions are fairly and humanely administered, or whether they ever can be, citizens must have reliable information about the ‘initial procedures,’ which are invasive, possibly painful and may give rise to serious complications,” wrote Judge Raymond C. Fisher.

The California First Amendment Coalition and the Society of Professional Journalists challenged a 1996 state policy that required prison officials to draw a curtain across the glass windows of the execution chamber until after the inmate is prepared for execution and officials are out of sight.

State prison officials followed the procedure for the 1996 execution of serial killer William Bonin. Court documents show that prison officials had considerable difficulties in inserting needles and administered the lethal chemicals without any announcement to the witnesses.

Various rulings both upheld and struck down the policy. While witnesses saw the complete execution of Keith Daniel Williams in 1996, they saw only the final four minutes of the next four. A ruling by a federal district court last year struck down the policy for the March 2001 execution of Robert Massie and one this year for Stephen Wayne Anderson.

The Aug. 2 ruling by the appellate court panel upheld the district court decision.

(California First Amendment Coalition v. Woodford; Media counsel, Roger R. Myers and Lisa M. Sitkin, Steinhart & Falconer, San Francisco) PT

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