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Media sue state over execution viewing

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Three media organizations sued California corrections officials in federal court in San Francisco Thursday, seeking the right for witnesses, including reporters, to view the entire procedure of an execution.

A new protocol by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for executions at San Quentin State Prison went into effect on March 1. It uses one drug instead of the previous three to carry out death penalties.

The lawsuit by the Los Angeles Times, KQED Inc. and 48hills claims the new protocol violates the free-speech right of the public and the media to view executions because the plan “intentionally places critical portions of the execution beyond public observation.”

While witnesses will be allowed to view the condemned inmate and intravenous lines carrying the lethal chemical, the mixing of the chemical and its placement into the intravenous lines will be in a separate room closed to witnesses, the lawsuit says.

In addition, the protocol calls for the curtain on the viewing window to be closed if the inmate does not die after three doses of the chemical.

Information about what happens during executions is required to enable the public “to make informed decisions, via democratic process, about whether executions should be conducted at all, and if so, how,” the lawsuit claims.

The suit asks for a court order barring corrections officials from using a protocol that conceals important information from witnesses.

Corrections department spokeswoman Terry Thornton said the agency has not been served with the lawsuit and said she could not comment.

The defendants in the case are corrections Secretary Scott Kernan and San Quentin Warden Ronald Davis.

The third plaintiff in the case, joining the Los Angeles Times and KQED, is the San Francisco Progressive Media Center, which operates 48hills.

Although the protocol is complete, executions in California are on hold until a long-running federal lawsuit by inmates challenging the death penalty procedure is resolved. The last execution in California took place in 2006.

There are now 746 inmates on death row in California.

The new protocol provides that the one-drug execution can be carried out with either pentobarbital or thiopental. The choice is to be made by the San Quentin warden.

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