California has abandoned the legal defense of its delay-ridden lethal injection procedures, moving ahead to adopt a single-drug option that has been embraced by other states trying to enforce their death penalty laws.
The Brown administration has decided against appealing a May ruling that invalidated the state's three-drug execution method, which has been mired in years of state and federal court legal tangles.
Faced with a Wednesday deadline, the state chose not to seek a California Supreme Court review of the decision striking down the three-drug procedure because state officials failed to follow administrative rules when adopting them several years ago.
A prison system spokeswoman said the governor and other state officials will proceed with working out a method of executing condemned inmates with a single fatal dose of a sedative, which other states -- such as Ohio, Arizona and Washington -- have adopted to short-circuit legal challenges to their lethal injection procedures.
The governor has ordered prison officials to craft the single-drug option to "ensure that California's laws on capital punishment are upheld," the Department of Corrections said in a news release.
However, the latest development will not kick-start executions in San Quentin's death chamber. Approving the single-drug method could take a year or longer, and then it must be reviewed by the federal courts, adding further delays to California's death penalty system.
More than 725 inmates live on California's death row, where there has not been an execution since early 2006 as a result of lethal injection legal challenges. Death row inmates sued over the three-drug execution method, arguing that it risked a cruel and inhumane death.
In response to a federal judge's concerns, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and current Gov. Jerry Brown both tried to overhaul the three-drug procedures, revising training for execution team members, built a new lethal injection chamber and crafted new rules for carrying out executions. But the state has botched the effort, twice violating the state's administrative procedures rules.
In the May ruling, the 1st District Court of Appeal scrapped the regulations, finding, among other problems, that state officials never publicly explained why they opted for the three-drug method instead of the single-drug option when they held hearings in 2010.
California could face other obstacles even if challenges to the single drug option fail. States across the country, including California, are struggling to assemble reliable supplies of execution drugs because of resistance from drug manufacturers and other problems, prompting separate legal challenges in other courts.
If the state resumes executions, more than a dozen death row inmates now have exhausted their legal appeals and would be eligible for execution dates in a relatively short time.
Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236. Follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz.