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Execution of Killer-Rapist Is Delayed

Prison warden wanted more time to train the doctors who were to monitor the procedure to ensure that Michael Morales felt no pain.

February 21, 2006|Louis Sahagun and Tim Reiterman | Times Staff Writers

A court-ordered requirement that convicted murderer-rapist Michael Morales' execution be monitored by an anesthesiologist caused an unexpected delay late Monday, only an hour before his scheduled death by lethal injection.

The execution was delayed because Warden Steven Ornoski decided that he wanted two anesthesiologists to undergo additional training "in order to understand their roles and the expectations," said prison spokesman Vernell Crittinton.

"The warden is not at a level of comfort at this moment," said Crittinton, who noted that the death warrant for Morales calls for the execution within 24 hours of 12:01 a.m. Tuesday.

When asked if Morales had been informed of the delay, Crittinton said: "At this point he has not been informed. If we decide that it can't be done in 24 hours, he will be told."

Prison spokeswoman Sarah Ludeman said that if the execution did not occur within 24 hours of 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, a judge would have to set another date.

Early Tuesday, defense attorney David Senior said that he had serious concerns that the prison was not adhering to the judge's order, which vaguely called for prison officials to provide conditions and equipment "normally used in medical settings."

"We're expecting an EKG and blood pressure monitors in the room at their disposal," he said, referring to the anesthesiologists. "Can you imagine an anesthesiologist working in this day and age without those things?"

He said that the defense team had asked the judge for a stay, but that the prison officials opted for a delay for additional training for the doctors.

The anticipated execution at San Quentin State Prison followed a last-minute clemency campaign fraught with controversy and highly unusual legal twists and turns.

Morales, 46, was convicted of the brutal 1981 slaying of Terri Winchell, a 17-year-old Lodi high school senior. He admitted conspiring with his cousin, Rick Ortega, to kill Winchell as payback for her dating Ortega's bisexual lover. But he said he accepted responsibility for the crime and was deeply remorseful.

He was set to become the 14th man and the first Latino executed by the state of California since capital punishment was reinstated in 1978.

He also was to be the third inmate executed in California in 10 weeks, and the fifth to whom Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has denied clemency since he took office two years ago.

Morales' defense team had argued that the state's three-stage lethal injection protocol violated a constitutional ban on "cruel and unusual punishment," claiming that the initial rounds of sedatives and paralytic agents might mask, rather than prevent, pain from the final heart-stopping chemicals.

After studying the medical logs of executed inmates, U.S. District Court Judge Jeremy Fogel agreed that the procedure was prone to error and recommended having a doctor present to make sure Morales was rendered unconscious before the final dose. His ruling applies, however, only to the Morales execution.

Defense attorneys asked the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to stop the execution on the grounds that Fogel's remedy was untested and had not been subjected to legal, medical or administrative reviews. The altered procedure was also protested by physician groups, including the American Medical Assn., on the grounds that it contradicted a doctor's Hippocratic oath to prevent harm.

Crittinton cited Fogel's ruling as the reason for the delay in the execution: "The protocol is relatively new in that this court decision just came down," he said.

Morales' petitions to block the execution were rejected by the appeals court over the weekend and by the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday. An unusual second request for clemency, filed just 12 hours before the scheduled execution, was also rejected by the governor.

In the clemency bids rejected by the appeals court, the California Supreme Court and Schwarzenegger, defense lawyers Senior and former Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr argued that the decision to execute Morales was based on false testimony from a jailhouse informant.

Morales' trial judge, Ventura County Superior Court Judge Charles R. McGrath, came to agree and announced late last month that had he known that the informant -- a star witness for the prosecution -- had lied, he would not have supported a capital murder charge or sentenced Morales to death in 1983.

Legal experts said it was the first time since California reinstated capital punishment that a judge had asked a governor to commute the judge's own sentence of death to one of life in prison without possibility of parole.

In his second petition to Schwarzenegger, Starr made a point of saying that there was no record of a governor disregarding a sentencing judge's recommendation for clemency.

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