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New Execution Chamber Infuriates Lawmakers

Facility at San Quentin Was Built quietly

by Mark Martin

SACRAMENTO - Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration has quietly built a new execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison, prompting angry lawmakers who learned about the construction just this week to accuse the governor of hiding the project from the Legislature and the public.Prison officials began construction in January after concluding it would cost $399,000 -- just under the $400,000 that would have required legislative approval, according to an administration document obtained Friday by The Chronicle.

The new death chamber is being finished as the state's use of capital punishment is under review by a federal court, and lawmakers have yet to authorize a larger construction project to revamp the prison's entire Death Row.

"To sneak a project like this through is just outrageous,'' said Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, whose Marin County district includes San Quentin. "We will find out what kind of creative accounting they've done.''

Jim Tilton, Schwarzenegger's secretary for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said he had a good reason for not informing lawmakers -- he was unaware of the project.

In an interview late Friday afternoon, Tilton said he was aware that the corrections staff was discussing whether to build a new death chamber in response to a ruling in December by U.S. District Court Judge Jeremy Fogel that the state's haphazard process for administering capital punishment could be considered unconstitutional. But Tilton said he had not been told that construction had begun.

"I hate to admit it, but I don't know everything that's going on in the department,'' he said. "Folks (in the department) weren't sensitive to the history of this project. Had I known there was a conclusion, I would have passed it on.''

Fogel ordered Schwarzenegger in December to come up with changes for executions. Among the concerns that Fogel cited, which included the administration of the drugs used for lethal injections, was the dimly lit and cramped space the state has used as its execution chamber.

Schwarzenegger filed a response to Fogel's ruling in January that said he would enact changes by mid-May, although he did not say he would build a new death chamber.

A Jan. 23 memo from corrections officials to the Department of Finance described the new construction project, saying the state had been directed by the judge to create a new chamber -- an assertion that appears to be untrue. The memo also notes that the project's price tag would be $399,000 and therefore would not require legislative approval.

No one outside the administration knew about the construction until this week, when staffers with the Legislative Analyst's Office were on a routine tour of the prison and were shown the project, which is expected to be finished by early May. Construction workers are renovating an existing structure at the prison to use as the new execution chamber, which will include separate rooms for the condemned inmate, the media and other visitors.

The Legislative Analyst's Office -- a nonpartisan agency that provides financial advice to the Legislature -- is seeking information from the administration about the project, including how it arrived at the price tag. State law allows departments to make minor capital improvements, such as repairs, without notifying the Legislature as long as the cost is less than $400,000, according to Brian Brown, who works on corrections issues for the analyst's office.

Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, called the secrecy of a project involving such a high-profile issue "insulting.''

"Why not $399,999.99?'' Leno asked facetiously. "The question is, was this price tag a coincidence?''

Seth Unger, media secretary for the Department of Corrections, said the department was under a tight timeline to make changes that didn't "allow the normal budget process.''

"Our facilities managers were able to construct it for that amount of money, and so we chose to go with that process,'' Unger said. He noted the department intended to inform the Legislature of the project in an upcoming quarterly report that lists all minor construction projects.

Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, said the cost was "suspicious'' and said he would demand that corrections officials explain the project at a public hearing.

Perata noted that two of his aides were at San Quentin earlier this month and were not shown the new building. He said the revelation about a new death chamber could slow negotiations between the governor and lawmakers on other prison issues.

"He is asking us for the authority to build $10 billion in new prison beds,'' Perata said about the governor's proposal to address prison overcrowding. "But if we can't trust them on something like this, why should we trust them at all?"

Huffman said he was particularly angry because he recently held a meeting with Tilton about a proposal to rebuild the Death Row at San Quentin, and Tilton did not mention the new execution chamber.

Tilton said Friday that he had not been aware during his meeting with Huffman that a new chamber was being built.

The Schwarzenegger administration has proposed a $337 million project that would build new cells for Death Row inmates, who are living in old, cramped quarters.

The project has been proposed for years and met with opposition in Marin County, where some local officials have called for closing the 155-year-old prison. The new Death Row proposal is 53 percent more expensive than one proposed in 2003, and a recent report by the Legislative Analyst's Office recommended that lawmakers reject the project.

"Why on earth would you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on something when the whole Death Row project is in question and we're not sure our form of capital punishment will meet constitutional muster?'' Huffman said.

The new chamber was built next to the famed lime-green structure that was a gas chamber until the state began using lethal injection in 1996.

Condemned inmates legally may choose whether to be executed by gas or lethal injection. Tilton said the new building was not set up as a gas chamber and that the department would keep the old structure.

While administration officials said in the memo initiating the project that they had been directed by the court to create a new execution chamber, there is no court order suggesting they do so. Fogel asked the administration to come up with proposed solutions, which he plans to review after they are submitted in May.

An attorney for Michael Morales, the Death Row inmate who sued the state over its use of lethal injection, said he was not aware of the administration's project and did not believe the governor had notified the court that it was building a new chamber.

The attorney, David Senior, noted that Schwarzenegger had requested an unusual court order that would have allowed the administration to keep its deliberations about revamping death penalty procedures under seal, which would have made it more difficult for defense lawyers or the media to obtain any documents related to the issue. The Chronicle and other news organizations argued against the court order, and Fogel agreed with them in a February ruling.

"The failure to disclose what they're doing and how they're doing it (at San Quentin) meets squarely with their refusal to provide transparency throughout this process,'' Senior said.

E-mail Mark Martin at markmartin@sfchronicle.com.

© 2007 Hearst Communications Inc. |

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