February 21, 2006

California postpones execution indefinitely

By Carolyn Abate

SAN QUENTIN, California (Reuters) - California officials
postponed indefinitely the execution of convicted killer
Michael Morales on Tuesday after notifying a federal court they
could not comply with a court order that medical professionals
assist in carrying out his death sentence.

San Quentin State Prison spokesman Lt. Vernell Crittendon
said prison officials, who had delayed the execution earlier in
the day, could not find a licensed medical professional willing
to inject a lethal drug into Morales.

"The warden has chosen to stand down," Crittendon told
reporters, adding that he expects a court hearing on May 2 or
May 3 to review the mechanics of California's lethal injection
method of execution.

Separately, the clerk for the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of
Appeals in San Francisco told Reuters that California Attorney
General Bill Lockyer's office had decided to postpone the
execution indefinitely.

"They notified us they weren't proceeding with the
execution tonight," said clerk Cathy Catterson. "Accordingly
the state will not proceed with the execution."

Catterson said Lockyer's office informed the court it could
not comply with a judge's order last week requiring the state
to take new precautions to assure a lethal injection did not
cause undue suffering to Morales.

Defense attorneys claimed last week that lethal injection
was cruel and unusual punishment, barred by the Constitution.

This prompted U.S. District Court Judge Jeremy Fogel to
order prison officials to either alter the composition of the
lethal chemicals used in the execution or make medical experts
available to ensure unnecessary pain was not inflicted.

The two anesthesiologists selected for that task refused
early on Tuesday to be present to certify Morales, 46, was
unconscious before a lethal injection was given, thus
minimizing any pain. That forced prison authorities to delay
the execution for at least 15 hours.

"While we contemplated a positive role that might enable us
to verify a humane execution protocol for Mr. Morales, what is
being asked of us now is ethically unacceptable," the doctors
said in a statement.

Without the doctors present, the state sought court
approval on Tuesday to execute Morales with a single dose of
sodium pentothal instead of a combination of drugs. A U.S.
District Court approved that plan.

Morales, whose attorney recruited former Whitewater
prosecutor Kenneth Starr to back his bid for clemency, had been
scheduled to die at 7:30 p.m. PST (0330 GMT on Wednesday) for
the 1981 rape and murder of 17-year-old Terri Winchell.

Her family was disappointed that the execution was
postponed while Morales was relieved, Crittendon said.

Dr. Priscilla Ray, chairwoman of the American Medical
Association Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs, last week
condemned the ruling requiring the anesthesiologists presence.

"The use of a physician's clinical skill and judgment for
purposes other than promoting an individual's health and
welfare undermines a basic ethical foundation of medicine --
first do no harm," she said. "Requiring physicians to be
involved in executions violates their oath to protect lives."

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had denied a request
for clemency on Friday and two last-minute appeals to the U.S.
Supreme Court for a stay of execution failed late on Monday.

(Additional reporting by Michael Kahn and Jim Christie in
San Francisco)