Judge hears arguments on full execution viewing

The Associated Press
Friday March 16, 2001

California’s next execution, scheduled for later this month, is mired in new litigation that’s not from the condemned inmate who dropped his appeals. 

A hearing was set for Thursday on a request by the state Corrections Department asking a federal judge to block a court order allowing witnesses at San Quentin to view executions in their entirety. 

Opposing that petition are media organizations and the American Civil Liberties Union, which jointly convinced a judge in July to order the state to abolish the practice of partial viewings of lethal injections. 

Citing security concerns, the Corrections Department adopted the restrictions in 1996, shortly before the state’s first lethal injection execution. On Feb. 23, 1996, at William Bonin’s execution, a curtain was pushed back to reveal Bonin already strapped to the table with needles and tubes inserted into his body. 

Afterward, officials reported Bonin’s last words and described the difficulty a staff member had in inserting a needle into a vein. 

The procedures were challenged by The Associated Press, the Society of Professional Journalists and the California First Amendment Coalition. 

They argued the state effectively prevented the public from learning what happens during an execution, and that the law demands that independent observers witness an execution, “not a corpse already on the table,” said Terry Francke, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition. 

It is uncertain whether U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker will reverse his own order demanding the executions be shown in their entirety. The state said it would appeal Walker’s ruling if he doesn’t reverse himself. 

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has been asked to intervene in the case twice. It sided with the state once and then with the media, ordering the state to allow witnesses full view of Keith Williams’ lethal injection execution on May 3, 1996. 

“We’re questioning whether the opinion Judge Walker made was correct,” said state Deputy Attorney General Thomas Patterson. 

The state already has appealed Walker’s original decision to the circuit court. But because of the slow appellate process, the state filed a petition asking Walker to block his own order before the scheduled March 27 execution of Robert Massie so the appeal can be heard after the execution. 

It’s a move the ACLU, which is representing the media groups, opposes. 

“There are absolutely no security problems resulting from the state opening up its execution,” ACLU attorney David Fried said. “And there was none at Williams’ execution.” 

Past and present San Quentin wardens testified before Walker in support of keeping reporters and other execution witnesses from seeing guards or the prisoner at a lethal injection until the chemicals begin flowing. 

Former wardens Arthur Calderon and Daniel Vasquez and the current warden, Jeanne Woodford, said allowing reporters to see more would increase the chances that guards would be identified and endangered. 

Walker said San Quentin’s policy was “an exaggerated response” to safety concerns. 

The media charged that claims of danger to guards were unfounded and could be addressed by protective measures such as using surgical masks to conceal their identity. 

The state countered that masks would be undignified and ineffective. Calderon, the warden during four executions, testified he thought a prisoner could tear off a guard’s mask in a struggle, despite being chained by the arms. 

Walker ruled in 1997 that an execution must be visible to reporters from start to finish. His order was in effect for only one execution before the 9th Circuit reinstated the state’s restrictions in 1998. The circuit said the public and press have, at most, a “severely limited” constitutional right to view executions, which must be balanced against the prison’s security concerns. 

The circuit returned the case to Walker to determine whether the state’s rules were an “exaggerated response” to its security needs. 


Eight inmates have been executed in California since voters reinstated capital punishment in 1978. 

The case is California First Amendment Coalition vs. Woodford, C-96-1291-VRW.