SAN QUENTIN — Capping a dramatic legal battle that raised questions of medical ethics and the future of lethal injection, California prison officials late Tuesday called off Michael Morales' execution, saying they were unable to comply with a judge's conditions for putting the convicted rapist-murderer to death.
The state's decision means that the execution will be delayed at the very least until early May -- and more likely for many months -- while the federal court in San Jose conducts a formal evidentiary hearing on the constitutionality of the state's execution procedures.
Although it is unclear whether the continuing legal saga will have a broad effect on the death penalty in California -- the U.S. Supreme Court has never found any method of execution unconstitutional -- several experts said the controversy will probably prompt a reexamination of how executions are conducted here and across the country.
Morales was sitting in a prison cell with his Los Angeles attorney, David Senior, when San Quentin spokesman Vernell Crittendon brought them the news that the execution had been called off.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 14, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 2 inches; 79 words Type of Material: Correction
Death penalty -- An article in Section A on Feb. 22 on California prison officials' decision to call off Michael Morales' execution said the U.S. Supreme Court has never found any method of execution unconstitutional. The Supreme Court hasn't found any method used by any state to be unconstitutional, but in a death penalty decision handed down in 1879, Wilkerson vs. Utah, the court held that "punishments of torture" would violate the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
"He was quite relieved to find he was not being executed," Crittendon said. "He smiled and nodded and thanked me."
It is highly unusual for a death sentence to be stayed in the final hours because of a legal challenge over the method of execution. The May hearing is expected to be the most detailed court examination of the state's execution methods since the switch from use of the gas chamber to lethal injection in 1996.
The Morales furor began a week ago when U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel declared that California's three-stage drug cocktail of a sedative, paralytic drug and heart-stopping chemical -- the same protocol used in 37 of the 38 states with lethal injection -- could mask, rather than eliminate, an inmate's pain during execution.
Fogel said the state would have to modify its execution procedure or he would hold a full hearing on the process in May.
To address his concern, prison officials elected to go forward just after midnight Monday with two doctors on hand to ensure that the sedative would be sufficient to deaden the pain of the heart-stopping drug. Just before the execution, however, the two anesthesiologists balked, saying the procedures forced them into the role of executioner, in violation of their medical ethics.
Fogel then said officials could go forward later in the day with a lethal dose of the sedative alone -- administered by a licensed medical professional stationed within the execution chamber rather than by the usual "unseen hand" delivering the fatal drugs from another room.
But just two hours before the new, 7:30 p.m. time for the execution, a deputy attorney general told court officials that it had been called off.
San Quentin spokesman Crittendon said the state "was not able to find any medical professionals willing to inject medication intravenously, ending the life of a human being."
"The warden felt it was not ethical to approach an individual who would potentially be putting their license in jeopardy," Crittendon said. "How would it affect their careers by being involved in the execution process in the manner we've been discussing?"
Tuesday's outcome was applauded by attorney Natasha Minsker, who directs the death penalty project of the American Civil Liberties of Northern California. "We think this is appropriate," she said. "There will be a hearing so both sides can present their evidence. It is a serious issue that needs careful consideration."
Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which favors the death penalty, said he thought Tuesday's outcome was "an unfortunate result. It is based on a very remote possibility that there is a problem with the procedure. It is unfortunate that this is being done at the last minute."
But he said the delay, while highly unusual, was merely temporary and predicted that it would have no long term consequences on capital punishment.
Crittendon said Morales spent the day in a death-watch cell 15 feet from the execution chamber. At 3:20 p.m., he visited with his lawyers. Then, at 5:45 p.m., he was returned to the more distant death-row cell he had occupied until Monday.
Crittendon also met with family members of 17-year-old Terri Winchell, whom Morales was convicted of murdering. "They took this very hard," Crittendon said.
Reached at her Lodi-area home, Terri Winchell's mother described herself as "knocked down" by the decision. It "was just like someone hit you in the stomach," Barbara Christian said. "You feel weak, and the pain hurts.... We have lived with a knife in our hearts for all these years, and this makes the knife even sharper."
The halting of the execution comes as challenges to the constitutionality of lethal injection are spreading across the country. First adopted by Oklahoma when it enacted a new death penalty law in 1977, lethal injection is now the predominant method of execution across the nation.