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Morales Loses Clemency Bid as Doctors Fight Role in Execution

Schwarzenegger reviews details of 1981 murder, which the inmate has admitted. Groups say aiding his death violates the physicians' oath.

February 18, 2006|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Friday denied clemency to death row inmate Michael Morales as medical groups protested a federal judge's order that a doctor monitor the execution.

An array of professional medical organizations lashed out against the court prescription, saying that it contradicts a physician's obligation to save lives.

In a five-page statement, Schwarzenegger said Morales' "claim that he is a changed man does not excuse the brutal murder of Terri Winchell." Morales was convicted in the 1981 rape and murder of the 17-year-old Lodi high school senior.

"Nothing in the record or the materials before me compels a grant of clemency," Schwarzenegger said. "The pain Ms. Winchell's loved ones have been forced to endure at the hands of Morales is unfathomable, as is the brutality of the acts he perpetrated."

In an interview, San Joaquin County Deputy Dist. Atty. Charles Schultz agreed. "I'm glad the governor did this," he said. "It's an appropriate decision because of the brutality of the crime."

Morales, 46, is scheduled to die by lethal injection at San Quentin State Prison on Tuesday. Under a federal court order, corrections officials have arranged for an anesthesiologist to ensure he is unconscious when the fatal dose is administered.

U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel's ruling Tuesday came in response to defense lawyers' charges that the state's standard three-drug potion was unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment. A doctor, he said, would ensure that Morales was unconscious before the painful second and third drugs are delivered into his veins.

Dr. Priscilla Ray, head of the American Medical Assn., said Fogel's ruling disregarded a doctor's ethical obligations. "A physician, as a member of a profession dedicated to preserving life when there is hope of doing so, should not be a participant in a legally authorized execution," she said.

The California Medical Assn. and the American Society of Anesthesiologists agreed.

The state medical association expressed its dismay in a statement reiterating that it "has for decades sought to end physician participation in capital punishment, including seeking legislation banning such actions by physicians and other healthcare professionals."

But Nathan Barankin, spokesman for the state attorney general, suggested that the judge was only complying with Morales' own medical expert, Dr. Mark Heath.

In a declaration submitted Feb. 14, Heath said the involvement of an anesthesiologist "is an easily taken step that would greatly reduce the possibility of an inhumane execution."

Nonetheless, Morales' defense team filed a motion Friday with the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to stay Fogel's decision on the grounds that adding an anesthesiologist to the procedure does not adequately address their claim of cruel and unusual punishment.

Defense attorneys also filed a separate challenge with the appellate court Friday asserting that Morales was wrongfully sentenced to death on the basis of a jailhouse informant's false testimony. The informant, Bruce Samuelson, testified that Morales boasted about the killing in a conversation conducted in Spanish. A decade later, however, it was revealed that Morales does not speak Spanish.

The discrepancy prompted Morales' trial judge late last month to urge Schwarzenegger to grant clemency.

But in rejecting the inmate's clemency petition, Schwarzenegger noted that the issue of Samuelson was recently rejected by the California Supreme Court.

Most of Schwarzenegger's statement related gruesome details of the Jan. 8, 1981, crime. Morales, who says he was high on PCP at the time, does not deny committing the murder. But Morales contends that the informants' testimony wrongly influenced the judge and jury to impose the death sentence.

The Stockton high school dropout, who was then 21, and his 19-year-old cousin Rick Ortega plotted to kill Winchell out of jealousy, the governor said.

"Ortega was involved in a homosexual relationship at the time and had learned that his lover was dating Ms. Winchell," he said.

Morales tried to strangle Winchell from behind with a belt, which broke. He struck her 23 times in the head with a hammer before dragging her across the road and into a vineyard, where he raped her and stabbed her four times in the heart.

The growing list of people urging clemency include Kenneth W. Starr, dean of the Pepperdine School of Law and former Whitewater independent counsel. Starr has said it would amount to "a grievous injustice of profound proportions."

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Times staff writer Henry Weinstein contributed to this report.

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