California must adopt a new process for executing condemned inmates after nearly three years of delays, a state judge ruled Thursday in a lawsuit filed by crime victims.
The tentative ruling by Sacramento Superior Court Judge Shellyanne Chang does not order the state to resume executions, which have been on hold since 2006. But she said corrections officials can't wait any longer to find a new way to conduct executions if they are reinstituted.
The lawsuit seeks to force state corrections officials to adopt procedures for a single-drug, barbiturate-only method of execution.
Chang found that the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has a duty to adopt execution procedures, but has the sole discretion to decide how the state will carry out the death penalty.
The department said it has been drafting new lethal injection regulations, without putting them into effect since Gov. Jerry Brown said in April 2012 that the state would switch to a single-drug lethal injection.
No executions can occur until the new rules are adopted by the department.
The department is reviewing the tentative ruling, said spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman. She previously said a nationwide shortage of execution drugs is slowing the process.
Chang's ruling will take effect unless officials can change her mind after oral arguments scheduled for Friday.
The suit was filed by a victims' rights organization on behalf of two relatives of murder victims who said they are affected by the delays.
Executions in California have been halted by a series of legal challenges over the past eight years. State policy currently calls for using a series of three drugs to put condemned inmates to death, but the lawsuit cites a 2006 ruling by a federal judge who said California could resume executions if it began using a process that only uses barbiturates.
The plaintiffs argue that at least eight other states are now using a court-approved one-drug process and California should follow their lead.
The state attempted to have the lawsuit thrown out, but Chang found that the relatives have a right to file the legal action.
Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which filed the lawsuit, called the tentative ruling a victory for crime victims.
“This is an area that has been evolving in the law, whether victims have any rights at all” or must merely watch the legal and regulatory process play out, Scheidegger said. The tentative ruling means victims do have rights when it comes to influencing state policies, he said.
Other legal challenges might still block executions even if new procedures are adopted.
A federal judge in Los Angeles ruled in July that carrying out the death penalty takes so long in California that it amounts to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. Attorney General Kamala Harris is appealing that ruling.CaliforniaCalifornia Newsdeath penalty