Court upholds last rites process

The Associated Press
Friday March 23, 2001



SAN FRANCISCO — Days before California’s next execution, the state Supreme Court upheld a prison department rule Thursday demanding spiritual advisers of condemned inmates leave the prisoner 45 minutes before the execution. 

The court ruled that the Corrections’ Department policy, in response to security concerns at San Quentin, is constitutional and that inmates do not enjoy “unrestricted” freedom of religion. 

Even so, the high court’s 7-0 decision upholds a prison department security policy that a federal judge ruled on Monday was an “exaggerated response” to safety concerns. 

Supreme Court Justice Joyce L. Kennard wrote that it was the department’s right to remove the adviser from the inmate 45 minutes before an execution to protect the identity of executioners who will then begin readying the prisoner for death. 

But on Monday, U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker ruled that San Quentin must show witnesses assembled for the execution the inmate being strapped down and the prison officials inserting needles. 

The prison didn’t want to, citing safety concerns for the executioners. It feared they could fall victim to retribution if the assembled witnesses were to see who was doing the killing, a position Walker ruled had no merit. 

The high court’s ruling came six days before California executes its ninth prisoner, Robert Massie, since voters reinstated capital punishment in 1978. 

Massie’s attorney, Frederick Baker, said Massie will have a spiritual adviser stay with him until prison officials order the Rev. Bruce Bramlett, an Episcopalian minister of San Rafael, to leave. 

“I think (Massie) finds having the ability to discuss matters in a spiritual nature to be a comfort,” Baker said. 

And although Bramlett’s time to administer last rites is reduced to protect the executioners’ identities, Bramlett will be one of the assembled witnesses to Massie’s death and may see who the executioners are. 

“You’ve identified the irony,” said Jordan Eth, a San Francisco attorney who argued the case before the high court. 

Prison spokesman Russ Heimerich said the department has not changed its spiritual adviser policy. 

The department also has not decided whether executioners at Massie’s lethal injection will wear masks to cover their identities. 

“We haven’t concluded that yet,” he said. 

San Quentin strives to execute inmates the first minute of the day a prisoner is eligible. Massie, who killed a San Francisco liquor store clerk in 1979 after robbing him, is scheduled to die at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday. 

Under the high court’s ruling, Bramlett can remain near Massie and speak with him until 45 minutes before the execution. The prison’s chaplain, who is a state employee, can remain for another 20 minutes.