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Deathrow: California










Cedric Johnson

James Dixon 

Lanell Craig Harris  


Randy Kraft   


Royal Clark  



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California's Deathrow Chamber

California's Entrance to Deathrow








History of Capital Punishment in California






Legal executions in California were authorized under the Criminal Practices Act of 1851. On February 14, 1872, capital punishment was incorporated into the Penal Code, stating:

A judgment of death must be executed within the walls or yard of a jail, or some convenient private place in the county. The Sheriff of the county must be present at the execution, and must invite the presence of a physician, the District Attorney of the county, and at least twelve reputable citizens, to be selected by him; and he shall at the request of the defendant, permit such ministers of the gospel, not exceeding two, as the defendant may name, and any persons, relatives or friends, not to exceed five, to be present at the execution, together with such peace officers as he may think expedient, to witness the execution. But no other persons than those mentioned in this section can be present at the execution, nor can any person under age be allowed to witness the same.

The various counties may have some records of the executions conducted under the jurisdiction of the counties, but the department knows of no compilation of these.

State Executions

Capital punishment on a county level continued until an amendment by the Legislature in 1891 provided:

A judgment of death must be executed within the walls of one of the State Prisons designated by the Court by which judgment is rendered.

In this statute, the warden replaced the sheriff as the person who must be present at the execution and invitation to the attorney general, rather than to the district attorney, was required.

Executions were conducted at both of the California state prisons then existing—San Quentin and Folsom. There apparently was no official rule by which judges ordered men hanged at Folsom rather than San Quentin or vice versa. However, it was customary to send recidivists to Folsom.

The first state-conducted execution was held March 3, 1893 at San Quentin. The first execution at Folsom was December 13, 1895.

Lethal Gas

In 1937, the Legislature provided that lethal gas replace hanging, with August 27, 1937 as the effective date. The law did not affect the execution method for those already sentenced. As a result, the last execution by hanging at Folsom was conducted December 3, 1937. The last execution by hanging at San Quentin was held May 1, 1942; the defendant had been convicted of murder in 1936.

A total of 215 inmates were hanged at San Quentin and a total of 92 were hanged at Folsom.

The only lethal gas chamber in the state was constructed at San Quentin. The first execution by lethal gas was conducted December 2, 1938. From that date through 1967 a total of 194 persons were executed by gas, all at San Quentin. This total includes four (4) women.

Legal Challenges and Changes

For 25 years after 1967, there were no executions in California due to various State and United States Supreme Court decisions.

In 1972 the California Supreme Court found that the death penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the state constitution. As a result, 107 individuals had their sentences changed to other than death. In November 1972, nine months after the decision, the California electorate amended the state constitution and overruled the State Supreme Court.

In 1973 the United States Supreme Court held that the death penalty was unconstitutional as it was being administered at that time in a number of states.

California legislation was passed in 1973 which made the death penalty mandatory in certain cases under certain conditions. Among these were kidnapping if the victim dies, train wrecking if any person dies, assault by a life prisoner if the victim dies within a year, treason against the state, and first degree murder under specific conditions (for hire, of a peace officer, of a witness to prevent testimony, if committed during a robbery or burglary, if committed during course of a rape by force, if committed during performance of lewd and lascivious acts upon children, by persons previously convicted of murder).

In late 1976, the California Supreme Court, basing its decision on a United States Supreme Court ruling earlier that year, held that the California death penalty statute was unconstitutional under the Federal Constitution because it did not allow the defendant to present any evidence in mitigation. Following this ruling, 70 inmates had their sentences changed to other than death.

Capital Punishment Reinstated

The California State Legislature re-enacted the death penalty statute in 1977. Under the new statute, evidence in mitigation was permitted.

The death penalty was reinstated as a possible punishment for first degree murder under certain conditions. These "special circumstances" include: murder for financial gain, murder by a person previously convicted of murder, murder of multiple victims, murder with torture, murder of a peace officer, murder of a witness to prevent testimony and several other murders under particular circumstances.

In 1977, the Penal Code also was revised to include the sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. At that time, the punishment for kidnapping for ransom, extortion, or robbery was changed from death to life without parole. Treason, train derailing or wrecking and securing the death of an innocent person through perjury became punishable by death or life imprisonment without parole.

Proposition 7, on the California ballot in November 1978, superseded the 1977 statutes and is the death penalty statute under which California currently operates.

Under state law, cases in which the death penalty has been decreed are automatically reviewed by the State Supreme Court. The Supreme Court may:

  • Affirm the conviction and the death sentence;
  • Affirm the conviction but reverse the death sentence (which results in a retrial of the penalty phase only); or
  • Reverse the conviction (which results in a complete new trial).

Even if the California Supreme Court affirms the death sentence, the inmate can initiate appeals on separate constitutional issues. Called "writs of habeas corpus," these appeals may be heard in both state and federal courts.

Although the death penalty was reinstated in 1978, no executions were carried out in California until April 1992 when Robert Alton Harris was put to death in the San Quentin gas chamber. This was the first execution in more than 25 years.

Lethal Injection

In January 1993, a new law went into effect allowing inmates to choose lethal injection or lethal gas as the method of execution. In August 1993, condemned inmate David Mason was executed after voluntarily waiving his federal appeals. Because Mason did not choose a method of execution, he was put to death by lethal gas, as the law then stipulated.

In October 1994, a U.S. District Judge, Northern District (San Francisco) ruled that the gas chamber was cruel and unusual punishment, barring the state from using that method of execution. That ruling was upheld by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in February, 1996.

That same year, the Penal Code was modified to state that if either manner of execution is held invalid, the punishment of death shall be imposed by the alternative means. The law further stipulated that lethal injection become the "default" method of execution should an inmate fail to choose. Serial killer William Bonin was executed on February 23, 1996 by lethal injection, the first California execution using that method.


The cost of carrying out an execution in California is difficult to assess. The average cost to house an inmate is about $26,894 per year. Staff assigned to the execution team receive their regular, budgeted salaries. The cost of the execution procedure, including the chemicals utilized, is minimal.

The real cost involved in the capital punishment procedure is related to the court reviews, both those mandated by the Legislature as well as the appeal procedures initiated by the convicted inmates’ legal staff. These costs vary depending upon the resources of the convicted inmate and the length of the court procedures involved.


All male prisoners on condemned status are housed in a maximum security unit at San Quentin State Prison. Females are housed in a maximum security unit at the Central California Women’s Facility at Chowchilla. The number of condemned inmates has increased steadily since 1978.

Lethal Injection Procedures





When Execution Order Is Received

As soon as the execution order is received, the condemned inmate is moved into a special security area of the prison. Based on hourly checks, staff document his/her behavior and bring anything unusual to the warden’s attention.

The inmate receives priority visiting privileges; no visitors are turned away without authorization of the warden. Every effort is made to accommodate visits by the inmate’s attorney including weekend or holiday visits if necessary.

Pre-Execution Reports

Two reports are prepared within three weeks of the established execution date. The first is 20 days before execution; the second is seven days before execution. Each report includes:

  • Psychiatric report - Results and interpretation of examinations, interviews and history of the inmate by three psychiatrists which will be used to determine the inmate’s sanity.
  • Chaplain report - Comments on the inmate’s spiritual and emotional well-being.
  • Summary of behavior - Observations noted by case worker and custody staff.
  • Cover letter from warden - Includes firsthand information from interviews, observations or communication with the inmate and his/her family or friends.

The seven day pre-execution report discusses any changes that have occurred since the first report.

Sanity Review Requests

Within 30 to seven days before the execution, the inmate’s attorney may submit current psychiatric information that may have a bearing on the sanity of the condemned inmate. This information will be provided to the panel of psychiatrists to consider in completion of the pre-execution psychiatric reports.

Last 24 Hours

During the day before the execution, the warden will make special arrangements for visits by approved family members, spiritual advisors, and friends.

About 6 p.m. the day before the execution, the inmate will be moved to the death watch cell which is adjacent to the execution chamber. From then on, a three-member staff unit will provide a constant death watch.

Soon after he is rehoused, the inmate will be served his last dinner meal. The prison makes every effort to provide the meal requested by the inmate.

Between 7 and 10 p.m., the inmate may be visited by the assigned state chaplain and the warden. The inmate may read, watch television, or play the radio. He can request special food items and coffee or soft drinks.

The family, spiritual advisors and friends the inmate has selected as witnesses may arrive up to two hours before the scheduled execution.

About 30 minutes before the scheduled execution, the inmate is given a new pair of denim trousers and blue work shirt to wear. He is escorted into the execution chamber a few minutes before the appointed time and is strapped onto a table. [The chairs previously used for lethal gas executions have been removed.]

The inmate is connected to a cardiac monitor which is connected to a printer outside the execution chamber. An IV is started in two usable veins and a flow of normal saline solution is administered at a slow rate. [One line is held in reserve in case of a blockage or malfunction in the other.] The door is closed. The warden issues the execution order.

The Execution

  • 5.0 grams of sodium pentothal in 20-25 cc of diluent
  • 50 cc of pancuronium bromide
  • 50 cc of potassium chloride

Each chemical is lethal in the amounts administered.

At the warden’s signal, sodium pentothal is administered, then the line is flushed with sterile normal saline solution. This is followed by pancuronium bromide, a saline flush, and finally, potassium chloride. As required by the California Penal Code, a physician is present to declare when death occurs.

After all witnesses have left, the body is removed with dignity and care. Typically, the family claims the body. If not, the State makes the arrangements.

Chamber Description

The California execution chamber is a self-contained unit at San Quentin State Prison which includes:

  • Witness area—Entered via a door to the outside, the witness area has a view of the chamber through five windows.
  • Execution chamber—An octagonal vacuum chamber, approximately 7-1/2 feet in diameter. It is entered through a large oval door at the rear of the chamber.
  • Anteroom—Contains three telephones. One is kept open for use by the Governor; the other is for use by the State Supreme Court and Attorney General’s Office; the third is connected to the Warden's office. The lethal injections are administered from the anteroom. The area also includes the valves and immersion lever used for executions by lethal gas.
  • Chemical room—Includes storage cabinets and a work bench, plus the chemical mixing pots, pipes and valves used for executions by lethal gas.
  • Two holding cells—Each contains a toilet and room for a mattress.
  • Kitchen/officers’ area—Includes a sink, cabinet, counter area and resting area for staff.


Up to 50 individuals may witness an execution. The following are specified in the Penal Code:

Warden* 1
Attorney General 1
Reputable citizens 12
Physicians* 2
Inmate family/friends 5 (if requested)
Inmate spiritual advisor 2 (if requested)

State procedures also allow for:

News media representatives 17
State-selected witnesses 9
Staff escorts 4



All California deathrow prisoners are housed at San Quentin State Prison.


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