Despite voters’ renewed support for death penalty, no California inmates are close to execution 

click to enlarge Court ruling: State executions were halted in 2006 pending lawsuits over the lethal injection method.
  • Court ruling: State executions were halted in 2006 pending lawsuits over the lethal injection method.

This year, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Robert Fairbank’s appeal of his death sentence for the 1985 rape and murder of college student Wendy Cheek.

With that rejection, Fairbank joined at least 13 other death row inmates who have completed the decadeslong capital punishment appeals process and are eligible for execution.

Nonetheless, none of the 14 death row inmates who have “exhausted” their appeals will receive a lethal injection anytime soon — even though 53 percent of the California electorate reinforced its support of the death penalty with the rejection of Proposition 34 on Nov. 6.

Lawsuits in federal and state courts have halted executions since January 2006 and it will take months, maybe years, to resolve the litigation. Judges have ordered a halt to executions, and lawyers with the state’s Attorney General’s Office have promised not to pursue any executions until the cases are resolved.

Still, a growing number of prosecutors, law enforcement officials and capital punishment proponents are pushing for the quick resumption of execution, citing the defeat of Prop. 34 as a mandate from the voters. They’re calling for an end-run around the legal hang-ups, calling for the scrapping of the three-drug lethal injection at the center of the litigation and replacing it with a single-drug execution.

In recent months, Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley and San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe have formally asked local judges for death warrants for three death row inmates and an order to execute them with a single, lethal dose of pentobarbital, a drug previously used to euthanize animals.

But a Los Angeles judge rejected Cooley’s motion and Wagstaffe is expecting the same treatment in San Mateo Superior Court, conceding his legal maneuver to have Fairbank executed soon is more symbolic than realistic.

“I am simply trying to get the system moving,” Wagstaffe said. “I’m trying to shake the tree a little bit to get people to pay attention. He does deserve death for what he did to Wendy Cheek.”

Fairbank has been on death row since 1989. The other 13 inmates eligible for execution have been there even longer, including Michael Morales, who came within hours of his execution for the rape and murder of a teen before a judge blocked it in 2006 because of his lawsuit. Morales alleges the state’s process for administering the three-drug lethal cocktail is so flawed that inmates run the risk of suffering cruel and unusual punishment.

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