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State Halts Execution to Review Procedure

Officials are unable to meet a judge's demand that a lethal injection be overseen by a doctor. Effects on the death penalty are unclear.

February 22, 2006|Louis Sahagun and Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writers

The crux of the challenges is that rather than being more humane than a gas chamber or the electric chair, lethal injection masks what can be a very painful death.

Some critics maintain that the problems with lethal injection demonstrate the impossibility of conducting an execution humanely.

"Government officials don't want the American public to view the death penalty as a lethal, destructive, violent act that isn't really necessary. Therefore we sanitize and obscure the act of killing a person, who is no longer a threat to anyone, with protocols and procedures that are aimed at comforting the public," said Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama, who specializes in death penalty appeals.

"The problem is that killing another human being is always painful," added Stevenson, who also is a professor at New York University School of Law.

Fordham University law professor Deborah Denno, who has written several scholarly articles on methods of execution, said the hearing in May could lead to changes in the state's death penalty procedures. She said it was "unprecedented for a judge to get so involved with how the execution protocol is carried out."

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.

Denno said she thought that was a positive development, because most jurists had not looked closely enough at the actual execution process.

California officials "absolutely made the right choice in delaying the execution and deciding to hold an evidentiary hearing to evaluate lethal injection with the thoroughness and medical oversight that the procedure warrants," she said. "The state is also setting a standard that other states should follow before they proceed further with their lethal injection executions."

In lieu of the doctor's monitoring the inmate's condition, Judge Fogel had offered to let officials inject Morales, 46, with nothing but 5 grams of the powerful barbiturate sodium thiopental, which was expected to lengthen the execution from the usual 11 minutes to as much as 45 minutes or more.

But no one could say with certainty how long it would take for Morales to die, because the procedure had never been tried before. Prison officials and legal scholars said they were unaware of other states using a single sedative to carry out executions.

At a hearing in Fogel's court last week, attorneys for the state said stretching out the process would make it harder for family members who witnessed it, as well as the prison personnel involved in the execution.

Under state law, a death warrant has to be carried out within 24 hours. Normally, executions in California occur at 12:01 a.m. on the date specified by the warrant. But after the delay early Tuesday, corrections officials set the time for 7:30 p.m., affording them 4 1/2 hours to complete the execution before the warrant expired at midnight.

If Morales had not been executed within that time, prosecutors would have had to return to Ventura County Superior Court to seek a new execution date from a judge -- possibly the original trial judge, Charles McGrath, who no longer believes that Morales deserves to die.

Last month, in a rare move, McGrath -- who sentenced Morales to death in 1983 on the unanimous recommendation of a trial jury -- sent a letter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger urging clemency. McGrath said the jury's recommendation and his decision to sentence Morales to death were based on false testimony offered by a jailhouse informant.

Morales was convicted in 1983 of torturing, raping and murdering Winchell. Testimony was presented at trial that Morales had agreed to help his cousin Rick Ortega kill Winchell after Ortega learned that his bisexual boyfriend was dating her. Ortega, in a separate trial, was sentenced to life in prison.

Morales tried to strangle Winchell from behind in a car while Ortega was driving, according to trial testimony. After the belt broke, Morales struck her repeatedly in the head with a hammer before dragging her across the road into a vineyard, where he raped her and stabbed her four times in the chest, according to testimony.

Morales, who has admitted the crime, said he was high on PCP at the time and feels deep remorse. His attorneys, including Pepperdine law school Dean Kenneth W. Starr, mounted a vigorous campaign for clemency. Their effort was marred by allegations that one of their investigators had submitted juror affidavits to the governor -- urging commutation to life without parole -- that were forged. Schwarzenegger turned the lawyers down. Then Judge Fogel intervened, and state officials ultimately halted the execution.

Mack Winchell, Terri Winchell's 78-year-old father, said the decision Tuesday was a horrible blow.

"It's awfully hard to put faith in God, then have something like this," he said. "I will tell you what. I am having a hard time coping with this the last couple months. The strain and stress of it, every day of your life. You just can't get that girl out of your mind."

Times staff writers Tim Reiterman, Jill Leovy and Jenifer Warren contributed to this report.

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