Court Bans San Quentin's Secret Execution Procedures

Apr 15, 1997
ACLU of Northern California

Page Media

ACLU of Northern CA
Upholding the First Amendment right to witness California's executions, U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker ruled on February 28, 1997 that public witnesses - including the media - have a constitutionally protected right to observe executions.

"The Court has sent a loud and clear message that the California authorities cannot pull the curtain on executions. The public has a right to have representatives independently observe executions, and does not have to rely on government officials to tell us how they were performed," said attorney David Fried.

Jeffrey Ross of Friedman, Ross & Hersh explained, "Recognizing that capital punishment represents the 'ultimate exercise of state power,' the Court held that to discharge their function as the public's representatives, witnesses are entitled to perceive the nature and quality of the execution by observing the condemned from prior to his immobilization and attachment to the death apparatus until after his death."

ACLU-NC managing attorney Alan Schlosser added, "Recognizing the administration of the death penalty is a matter of great public concern and controversy, the Court upheld the media's First Amendment right to function in its critical role as the eyes and ears of the public."

Contrary to arguments from the Department of Corrections, the court ruled that there was no evidence that media presence jeopardizes prison security or the safety of prison personnel.

The ACLU-NC and the law firm of Friedman, Ross & Hersh filed the lawsuit, California First Amendment Coalition v. Calderon, on April 9, 1996 after William Bonin became the first person in California to be executed by lethal injection. Reporters and other witnesses to Bonin's February 23 execution were prevented by San Quentin prison officials from observing the complete execution procedure. Unable to offer first-hand accounts of the process, including the difficulties prison officials admitted they encountered in inserting the IV needles, the journalists could not thoroughly inform the public on all aspects of the execution. Thus, the public had to rely solely on prison officials for information about how the new method of execution was being implemented.

A month after the filing, on May 31, 1996, the ACLU-NC obtained a preliminary injunction on behalf of journalists, news organizations and First Amendment advocates enjoining prison officials from restricting witness observation of executions. The injunction allowed journalists and other witnesses to view San Quentin's execution of Keith Daniel Williams.

Plaintiff Peter Sussman, former president of the Society for Professional Journalists, said, "Judge Walker's ruling is right, it's important and it is also courageous. The Court has recognized a First Amendment right for public witnesses to see this most irrevocable of governmental acts in its entirety, without the mediation of prison PR people. It's not a role anyone can relish, but it's essential if the citizens of this state are to be kept informed about the awesome powers exercised in their name," he added."

The plaintiffs, the California First Amendment Coalition and the Society for Professional Journalists, are represented by ACLU-NC managing attorney Alan Schlosser and staff counsel Kelli Evans; and cooperating attorneys David M. Fried; Jeffrey S. Ross, Jill Hersh, Paul Jahn and Michael J. Kass of Friedman, Ross & Hersh; and Lynne S. Coffin of the Law Offices of Coffin & Love.