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Trial court will hear access to executions case

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    NMU         CALIFORNIA         Press at Home & Abroad         Feb 3, 2000    

Trial court will hear access to executions case

  • Media groups can pursue their request for access to entire executions at trial under a recent ruling from a federal judge.

A federal judge ruled in San Francisco Jan. 31 that the extent to which news media and other witnesses may view an execution will go to trial Feb. 14, according to the Associated Press.

During the 50 years of gas chamber executions in California, witnesses were allowed to watch the prisoners without interruption from the time they left their holding cells to the time they walked to the execution room. The Society of Professional Journalists and the California First Amendment Coalition argue this should still be the case, although executions are now carried out by lethal injection.

At San Quentin, where state executions are carried out, it has been standard procedure for guards to draw a curtain until the inmate has been strapped down and intravenous tubes have been inserted. Prison officials fear if the ten to twenty minute preparation period is viewed, the identities of the guards aiding in the execution may be exposed, causing their safety to be placed in jeopardy.

No reports of harassment or threats against guards in past executions conducted under broader access rules have been identified.

In a Feb. 28, 1997 ruling, San Francisco federal District Court Judge Vaughn Walker issued an order recognizing the First Amendment right of the news media and public representatives to view the entire process of executions in California, or at least from the time the condemned man or woman is strapped to the gurney. He said there was no evidence that the use of surgical masks, or some other form of hiding distinguishable features, would fail to protect prison personnel.

Walker’s order was suspended in August 1997 and overturned in May 1998, however, by the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) after the Department of Corrections on appeal successfully argued that the safety of the execution team should take precedence.

(California First Amendment Coalition v. Calderon)

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