Under state law, television cameras may capture the arrest, trial and sentencing of a California convict. This week, a trial will examine whether the video witnesses should be allowed to take the final step - into San Quentin's gas chamber.
In its federal civil lawsuit, publicly supported TV station KQED argues that the public has a right to see the death penalty meted out."Why is it that the ultimate act of criminal justice should suddenly be taken behind closed doors? This is being done in our name on our behalf and with our money, and therefore we would argue that we have a right to see it," said Michael Schwarz, current affairs director for the San Francisco station.
The state attorney general's office, however, says reporters don't have any specific legal right to witness executions and could pose security problems with their electronic equipment. For example, lawyers say, a camera could inadvertently show a guard or witness whose identity was supposed to be confidential.
California has not executed a prisoner since 1967, although voters approved reinstatement of the death penalty in 1978.
San Quentin Prison Warden Daniel Vasquez recently banned all reporters from witnessing executions, saying he doesn't want to relinquish control to the court.
"He felt that with the present action with the lawsuit with KQED that the federal courts were forcing the warden to elect between forfeiting or retaining control," said Vasquez spokesman Vernell Crittendon.
But KQED maintained it would press ahead with its suit.
"The real issues as defined by the judge were balancing the needs of the press for access against the needs for security. They're simply refusing to present any evidence. It's the fox guarding the chicken coop," Schwarz said.
State law mandates that executions be witnessed by the warden, the attorney general, two doctors, correctional staff and witnesses selected by the warden and the inmate, Crittendon said.
Schwarz said the ban on reporters and a previous policy declaring that names of witnesses won't be released makes the proceeding secret.
KQED's suit, filed last May, challenged state policy forbidding use of recording devices and cameras to cover the execution and also alleged that the process of selecting media witnesses was unfair.
An execution scheduled for last spring was halted by appeals, but in the meantime 14 media organizations were picked to act as witnesses, not including KQED.
The final decision on the list was made by the governor's press office, which KQED charged opened the door to political bias.
"The central issue here is who decides how a news event gets covered," Schwarz said. "The current process is completely arbitrary."
Deputy Attorney General Karl Mayer said it was preposterous to say politics influenced the list.
"It's a straw claim to get the court's attention and it's worked, but there's no actual manipulation of the coverage of an execution," he said.
U.S. District Judge Robert H. Schnacke heard both sides at a hearing last November and said the issues of prison security vs. effective reporting needed to be aired at a full bench trial.
In their legal arguments, both sides avoided the possible effect of taking public executions into Californian's living rooms.
"The state seems to fear that broadcasting an execution would undermine support for an execution, but I think to try and predict the effect on public opinion of broadcasting is purely speculative," Schwarz said.