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SAN FRANCISCO -- A federal judge who imposed a moratorium on state executions ruled Friday that the current method of lethal injection violates a constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
California's "implementation of lethal injection is broken, but it can be fixed," U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel said.
Fogel said the case presented the narrow question of whether a three-drug cocktail administered by San Quentin State Prison officials is so painful that it "offends" the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Fogel said he was compelled "to answer that question in the affirmative."
The decision is the latest in a nationwide challenge to lethal injection as cruel and unusual punishment and came just after Florida Gov. Jeb Bush suspended all executions in that state after a botched execution this week.
Lethal injection is the preferred execution method in 37 states.
Last month, a federal judge declared Missouri's injection method, which is similar to California's, unconstitutional.
The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld executions - by hanging, firing squad, electric chair and gas chamber - despite the pain they might cause, but has left unsettled the issue of whether the pain is unconstitutionally excessive.
California has been under a capital punishment moratorium since February, when Fogel called off the execution of rapist and murderer Michael Morales amid concerns inmates might suffer excruciating deaths.
Fogel found substantial evidence that the last six men executed at San Quentin might have been conscious because they were still breathing when lethal drugs were administered.
He ordered anesthesiologists to be on hand, or demanded that a licensed medical professional inject a large, fatal dose of a sedative instead of the additional paralyzing agent and heart-stopping drugs used. No medical professional, however, was willing to participate.
Attorneys for Morales alleged in a lawsuit that Morales might appear unconscious after being injected with a sedative, but internally he would succumb to excruciating pain, "burning veins and heart failure," once the paralyzing and the death drug were administered.
Morales, 47, of Stockton, raped and brutally beat a 17-year-old Lodi girl 25 years ago. Terri Winchell was found beaten and stabbed in a secluded vineyard.
There are more than 650 men and women on California's death row, the nation's largest.
The case is Morales v. Tilton, 06-219.