California prepared last night to execute its third death row inmate in as many months. For the first time an anaesthetist was present to minimise the condemned man’s pain.
Michael Angelo Morales, 46, was moved to a “death watch” cell at 6pm (2am Irish time) after the US Supreme Court refused to grant a stay and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger again denied his request for clemency in the torture, rape and murder of a 17-year-old girl 25 years ago.
Morales would be the 14th murderer and the first Hispanic to be put to death since California reinstated the death penalty in 1977. He appealed to the high court yesterday to block his execution, claiming that the lethal injection the state uses to administer capital punishment amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
But after Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy reviewed the case, the full court denied Morales’ final appeal, according to court spokesman Ed Turner. With Morales’s last avenue for a reprieve exhausted, one of his lawyers, former Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr, then pleaded with Schwarzenegger for a second time to commute the death sentence.
The governor once again refused, citing “the record and totality of circumstances in this case.”
Morales, a father of three grown children born before he was sent to San Quentin aged 23, elected not to have any relatives witness his execution, prison spokesman Vernell Crittendon said.
Under a new procedure ordered by a federal judge last week, prison officials retained an anaesthetist to be in the death chamber to certify that Morales would be unconscious from a sedative before another doctor administered a paralysing agent and the drug designed to stop Morales’ heart.
The change was made after Morales and his attorneys argued that the three-part lethal injection cocktail used in California and 35 other states violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. They said a prisoner would feel excruciating pain from the last two chemicals if he were not fully sedated.
The American Medical Association, the American Society of Anaesthesiologists and the California Medical Association have opposed the anaesthetists’ participation as unethical and unprofessional.
Morales was sentenced to death for killing Terri Winchell, a high school student he attacked with a hammer, stabbed and left to die half-naked in a vineyard. Morales plotted the killing with a gay cousin who was jealous of Winchell’s relationship with the cousin’s male lover. The cousin, Ricky Ortega, now 44, was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Unlike the last two inmates to be executed, Morales admitted to the crime that put him on death row. But in a petition for clemency that Schwarzenegger first denied on Friday, he claimed he killed Winchell because he was high on PCP and alcohol.
After the murder, Morales said, he became a penitent Christian who tried to use his mistakes to keep his three children out of trouble.
Besides the presence of an anaesthetist, Morales’ case was different from the previous 13 executions in another way. Earlier this month, the judge who imposed the death sentence on him in 1983 asked the governor to spare Morales because he no longer believed the credibility of a prison informant whose testimony helped land Morales on death row. The informant said Morales boasted of the crime in Spanish, a language he doesn’t speak.
Starr said that every time sentencing judges in California made such recommendations they were honoured by previous governors.
“Overriding such opinions,” Starr wrote, “is not only tantamount to thumbing one’s nose at the well-reasoned decision of the trial judge, it shows what will reasonably be viewed as disrespect for our system of government and our respective roles in that great and enduring system.”