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Judge rules media can view entire execution

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  1. Newsgathering

    NMU         CALIFORNIA         Newsgathering         Aug 1, 2000    

Judge rules media can view entire execution

  • A federal judge overturned a California Department of Corrections rule that prohibited witnesses and the media from viewing executions in their entirety.

California’s prison policy of allowing the news media to watch only a limited portion of lethal injection executions violates the rights guaranteed under the First and Eighth Amendments and the California Penal Code, U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker held on July 26.

Walker’s decision to allow “uninterrupted viewing of executions from the moment the condemned enters the execution chamber through to, and including, the time the condemned is declared dead” comes after the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th cir.) last year remanded the case to Walker, the trial judge, so he could determine whether California’s rules were an “exaggerated response” to security needs.

The judge found that the lethal injection rules were an exaggerated response because there have been no threats or acts of violence towards execution team members and because alternative means of concealing identities of the execution team members are available. Additionally, the judge noted that the regulation was at least partly motivated by a concern that the lethal injection procedure “would be perceived as brutal by the public,” and therefore was “prompted by considerations other than the legitimate concerns for prison personnel safety.”

The opinion also cited a history of continuous press and public access to executions dating as far back as England and the American colonies during the passage of the Bill of Rights.

Under the California rule, there are “no alternative opportunities or channels for information about these events to reach the media and the public,” Walker wrote. “The condemned inmate, the only non-government witness to any Eighth or Fourteenth Amendment violations that might occur . . . cannot communicate with the media or the public at the conclusion of his execution.”

Walker wrote that the appeal court’s remand order was an implicit acknowledgment that there were First Amendment issues in the case. The judge also reiterated his belief that there was an analogy between witnessing executions and other First Amendment rights of “‘access to certain government-controlled sources of information related to the criminal justice system,’ such as voir dire and trials,” an argument with which the appeals court had disagreed.

California’s policy restricting observation of lethal injection executions was adopted shortly before the state’s first lethal injection execution, which took place in February 1996.

The suit was filed by the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Civil Liberties Union after journalists were only allowed to watch limited portions of the lethal injection of William Bonin.

(California First Amendment Coalition v. Woodford; Media Counsel: David Fried, San Francisco) SK

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