Proposed Legislation Would Bring Back the Gas Chamber in California


san-quentinBy Jeanne Woodford

GUEST COMMENTARY – What do the gas chamber, state secrets and illegally manufactured drugs all have in common?

They are all in Senator Joel Anderson’s preposterous new bill, SB 779, sponsored by the California District Attorneys’ Association.

The measure is likely to fail but it’s the clearest evidence yet that California’s death penalty is broken beyond repair — and that the only sane choice is to replace it with life in prison without possibility of parole.

SB 779 is 35 pages long and proposes changes to 27 different code sections. It’s a massive, delusional overhaul of nearly every aspect of California’s wrecked and expensive death penalty system–from small things like how a transcript is reviewed, to big things like whether the Supreme Court can review a case at all.

But the most deranged proposal made by the California District Attorneys’ Association in SB 779 is that we bring back gas chamber executions to California.

How crazy is this idea?

Implementing this plan would make California the only jurisdiction in the world to carry out executions by suffocation. (Executions would be carried out using “a nontoxic gas administered in a lethal manner, such as by displacing oxygen,” thereby suffocating a person to death.)

More signs of insanity:

  • No country in the world currently carries out executions by gas, in any form.
  • No state in the US currently carries out executions by gas, in any form.
  • The only documented use of execution by any gas other than hydrogen cyanide is from Nazi Germany where 12 million innocent people were killed, 1 million of them gassed using carbon monoxide.

The fact that California’s DAs feel compelled to propose a new execution method says a lot.

They know California’s lethal injection procedures will remain mired in legal and practical problems for years, possibly forever. The latest problem is that prisons cannot find a legal source of the drugs. Pharmaceutical companies have stopped making them or prohibited their sale to prisons. Just this week, Georgia announced that it did not have any lethal drugs on hand and did not know where to get them.

To remedy this problem, the California DAs propose two more bad ideas: do everything in secret and allow the illegal manufacture of drugs. SB 779 proposes making all information about the purchase of execution drugs a “state secret” that cannot be revealed to the public. This includes who the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) pays for the drugs and the amount paid. The state’s last execution drug deal cost well over $20,000 for drugs that have a market value of less than $1,000 and now cannot be used due to a court order. No wonder the DAs don’t want you to know this.

SB 779 also seeks to exempt “pharmacists, compounding pharmacies, suppliers and manufacturers” from all state laws that control the manufacture and distribution of execution drugs.

The upshot would be that absolutely anyone–with no qualifications at all–could make and/or supply execution drugs to the CDCR. Under SB 779, the CDCR could literally ask a high school chemistry teacher to mix up drugs in an RV, with absolutely no oversight or control under state law. Breaking Bad, anyone?

The truth is that death penalty proponents are desperate. California voters came within a hair’s breadth of replacing California’s death penalty just that last November. Forty-eight percent of California voters supported Proposition 34, an initiative to replace the death penalty with life in prison without parole, while 52% of voters opposed it. This is an even closer margin than the 2008 initiative that banned same sex marriage in California, Proposition 8. Californians are now evenly divided on the death penalty and their support steadily increases as more learn the facts about its steep costs and permanent dysfunction. Sanity and savings are just a matter of time.

The District Attorney’s Association has repeatedly admitted that California’s death penalty is broken, ineffective and costly. But they claimed they could “fix” it, given chance.

Now we know: there’s no possible solution, only shockingly bad ideas that will cost even more money.

SB 779 shows us that California’s death penalty is hopelessly broken, from top to bottom. While California’s DAs conjure up more and more desperate and crazy ideas to try and prop the system up, we continue to waste millions of dollars a day. The only way to end the madness, and save the state $130 million every year, is to replace the death penalty with life in prison without possibility of parole.

Jeanne Woodford is a former warden at San Quentin state prison and current executive director of Death Penalty Focus, an anti-death penalty advocacy group.  Last year, she helped run Prop 34, the SAFE California campaign to end the death penalty.  This piece was reprinted with permission of the author.


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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