Declaring that "justice has been delayed too long," California state and county officials this week rushed into court to request execution dates for the first time in almost five years. To some, it might sound like the government is finally doing what it needs to do to get executions moving forward. But in reality, they are ignoring the law, setting up victims' families for yet another painful disappointment, and causing even more delays.
That's because they know full well that the state has a time-out on executions that was put in place in 2006, over concerns that our execution procedures were so plagued by problems that they were unconstitutional. This past Monday, when the Riverside DA's office and state officials asked a judge to set an execution date for Albert Brown, they knew another judge would decide the very next day whether executions could resume. Sure enough, by Tuesday morning, a state court judge in Marin issued an order stating that executions remain on hold.
But prison officials handed Mr. Brown the death warrant anyway. Even worse, they told the press they are moving forward with preparing for an execution, despite the judge's order. State officials also declared on Tuesday they would ask for another execution date, in the case of Michael Morales, even though the federal court order halting his execution remains in place.
Why would the Governor and AG seek execution dates and prepare for executions when there are court orders telling them they can't carry them out?
Their cavalier attitude toward the legal process doesn't serve anyone, least of all the families of homicide victims. Though Monday's news purported to promise an end to this 28-year-long ordeal, Tuesday's ruling only reconfirmed what the last three decades have already proven: the death penalty is as hollow a promise today as it was in 1982.
If Mr. Brown had been sentenced to permanent imprisonment, the legal ordeal would have ended in 1982. Instead, the empty promise of execution has lingered for over a quarter century.
The disregard for the legal process displayed this week by the Governor, Attorney General, and some county prosecutors is nothing new. In fact, it's just the latest in a string of attempts to jump-start the death penalty at the expense of the rule of law. After a federal judge ruled in 2006 that the execution procedures were unconstitutional, state officials drew up a new set. Those procedures were thrown out by the state court because they were created in secret. It would be two years before the state held an open, public process which generated over 20,000 comments from people around the state. Those comments were largely ignored, and a state agency rejected the procedures (again) in June of this year.
Then, in a shocking display of haphazard hastiness, the government had a new set of revisions within 48 hours. These procedures were approved by the state agency last month. The next step, legally speaking, is for a judge to review the procedures, to ensure that California's plan for carrying out executions conforms to state law and the Constitution.
That's the step prosecutors just tried to leapfrog over. A few county DAs, Attorney General Jerry Brown, and Governor Schwarzenegger are trying to bypass the critical stage of independent, judicial review of the execution process, and in so doing, they're bypassing the rule of law altogether. If they can't follow the law, they shouldn't put people to death in the name of law.
The rules are here for a reason. Without a thought-out and constitutional execution protocol, more mistakes will be made. But such a protocol will never be in place if state officials continue to skirt the law and dance around their responsibilities to the voters.
Californians need to stand up and demand that state officials stop ignoring the law. The legal process and the Constitution are not annoyances to be ignored or hurdles to be leapt over, they are essential safeguards that protect all Americans and ensure justice. They cannot be tossed aside when inconvenient and when the government tries to do so, it simply makes the whole process take longer. Take action now: tell Governor Schwarzenegger and Attorney General Brown you can't leapfrog the law if you want to execute people in its name.