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Problems Alleged in Williams' Execution

Lawyers for another condemned inmate say Crips co-founder may have felt horrible pain.

September 06, 2006|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

Prison officials allowed the execution of convicted murderer Stanley Tookie Williams to proceed, even though a nurse had failed to hook up a backup intravenous line minutes before authorities delivered the lethal injection drugs, according to court filings made public Tuesday.

Defense attorneys for a man on death row at San Quentin cited the problem as part of a legal challenge to California's lethal injection procedure. Later this month, U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel in San Jose will hear the challenge, which asserts that condemned prisoners may not be properly anesthetized and therefore experience excruciating pain during executions.

Attorneys for Michael Morales also assert in the newly unveiled court papers that California's execution protocol "is performed by prison personnel with criminal records of misconduct and who lack skill, competence, professionalism, patience, stability, training, qualifications, mental health and the necessary character to perform executions and the tasks associated with executions."

The team leader during the execution of Williams, a co-founder of the Crips gang who was convicted in the 1979 killings of four people, was suspended for misconduct, the papers contend. No details were provided. Many paragraphs of the legal pleadings were blacked out, under an order issued by Judge Fogel earlier this year that nothing be made public that would tend to identify a member of the execution team.

The over-arching contention of Morales' lawyers is that California's lethal injection protocol, which was modified in March, violates the 8th Amendment's prohibition on the "infliction of unnecessary pain in the execution of the death sentence."

California's protocol "is implemented under unacceptable conditions that unnecessarily increase the risk of unconstitutional pain, including ... obstructed views" that make it very difficult for prison personnel to see if an inmate is sufficiently anesthetized before the lethal drugs are administered, according to the papers submitted by attorneys David Senior, John Grele and Richard Steinken.

In addition, they say the procedure is flawed by inadequate lighting, remote administration of the drugs, unqualified management and "the absence of meaningful participation by properly licensed medical personnel."

Deputy Atty. Gen. Dane Gillette countered in legal papers that "conducting a lethal injection execution" under California's protocol "does not result in cruel and unusual punishment or deprive [Morales] of any right under the 8th or 14th amendments" to the U.S. Constitution.

Morales, 46, was scheduled to die in February for the 1981 slaying in Lodi, Calif., of teenager Terri Winchell. But state officials called off the execution after they were unable to meet conditions set by Fogel. California is one of several states where lawyers for condemned inmates have alleged that lethal injection, considered a more humane procedure than previous methods, often masks a painful death.

The California protocol calls for the inmate to be walked into the execution chamber and strapped onto a gurney. A nurse or medical technician inserts a catheter into the prisoner's vein, then leaves and the execution chamber is closed. A member of the execution team in an adjoining room inserts, in succession, three syringes containing the lethal drug cocktail into an intravenous line that flows into the prisoner.

How that procedure works in practice will be the subject of the court hearing starting Sept. 26. In preparation for the hearing, lawyers for Morales and California correctional authorities submitted a 22-page joint statement of "undisputed facts" and a five-page statement of "disputed facts."

The statements were drawn up by the lawyers after extensive pretrial discovery, including depositions of numerous individuals who have participated in executions at San Quentin.

Among the disputed defense contentions was that conducting an execution is "a surrealistic experience.... Warden Steven Ornoski was practically beside himself during the Stanley Williams execution."

Morales' lawyers painted a picture of earlier executions at San Quentin as chaotic and largely unmonitored by trained personnel. Wardens during the last three California executions refrained from looking at any part of the condemned inmate other than his feet, defense attorneys said.

During Williams' execution in December, a nurse struggled to start the backup line in the prisoner's left arm, then in frustration left the chamber without setting it properly.

As she exited, a member of the execution team said: "It wasn't flowing, the drip wasn't flowing." Before the door closed behind the nurse, a team member repeated, "The left wasn't running," according to the defense attorneys' filing.

Ornoski, standing in the center of the anteroom, said "Proceed" and the execution of the 51-year-old went forward, the defense said.

Corrections officials did not dispute other points raised by the defense, including:

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