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Forced to call off all executions
Death penalty exposed in California

March 3, 2006 | Pages 1 and 2

ELIZABETH TERZAKIS explains what led to the de facto moratorium on executions in California.

OFFICIALS AT California's San Quentin Prison attempted to comply with a judge's order to execute death row inmate Michael Morales "humanely." Their solution? Hire two anesthesiologists to oversee the process.

But when the doctors realized they might have to do more than watch, they backed out, citing ethical concerns. And over the course of the next 18 hours, California's system of capital punishment collapsed like a piece of rotten fruit.

"As it turns out, trained medical professionals agree that there is no humane way to murder someone," said Cameron Sturdevant, an activist with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. "I'm not surprised."

A week earlier, U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel had given the prison a choice: either find a licensed anesthesiologist to make sure that Morales remained unconscious during the execution, or forego the usual three-drug process for a straight, lethal dose of barbiturates.

The U.S. Supreme Court stopped an execution in Florida to hear arguments that lethal injection as currently practiced constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Fogel's order came in response to similar arguments from Morales' lawyers.

The three-drug process includes sodium thiopental, which causes loss of consciousness; pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes skeletal muscles; and potassium chloride, which stops the heart. If not fully unconscious, the person being killed would experience excruciating pain as the potassium chloride made its way to the heart--but the second drug that causes paralysis would mask this pain. For this reason, the American Veterinary Association has outlawed its use for putting down animals.

A Florida study showed alarmingly low levels of anesthetic in the bloodstreams of executed inmates, suggesting that the men had, in fact, been tortured to death.

Also at issue is whether non-medical personnel can competently carry out what is considered a medical procedure.

The last two executions at San Quentin suggest otherwise. When the state murdered Stanley Tookie Williams in December 2005, prison technicians missed the vein and administered the drugs into the tissue of Williams's arm, which made it take longer for him to die.

In January, the state needed twice the normal amount of potassium chloride to stop the heart of Clarence Ray Allen, a 76-year-old man who had been revived from a heart attack only four months earlier.

For this reason, Judge Fogel required a trained medical professional to administer the lethal dose of barbiturates--the prison's second option. No one was willing to do the job, and the prison was forced to postpone Morales' execution indefinitely.

Fogel has called for hearings on the constitutionality of lethal injection in early May, but the dispute is likely to shut down San Quentin's execution chamber for "most of 2006, perhaps longer," according to Nathan Barankin, spokesperson for Attorney General Bill Lockyer. Barankin calls the de facto moratorium "an opportunity for the state to conclusively resolve this question--that lethal injection is the safest and most humane method of carrying out the sentence."

Barankin, who answers to ardent death penalty supporter Lockyer, a Democrat, seems confident that the issue will be resolved in favor of continuing capital punishment.

But that isn't how things have gone in the past. Examination of previous methods of execution--which were all thought humane at the time of their introduction--has always produced the same verdict: killing a healthy person causes cruel and unusual pain and suffering.

"There's no reason to believe the procedures used today are any more humane than a sharp knife or a guillotine, but people don't want to do that because it looks too gory," Dr. Linda Emanuel, a neurophysiologist at Northwestern University, told the Chicago Tribune. "If we don't have the stomach for rolling heads, we need to ask ourselves why."

Anti-death penalty activists see the halting of executions in California as an opportunity--as well as confirmation that their tactics have been successful.

"People shouldn't look at this as a fluke or a stroke of luck," said the Campaign to End the Death Penalty's Northern California organizer Crystal Bybee. "This happened because hundreds of people--attorneys and activists--have worked hard for years to publicize all that's wrong with the death penalty. Now we need to take this opportunity to push things forward and publicize all the other problems--the racism, the arbitrariness, the jailhouse snitches, everything."

Bybee points out that lethal injection isn't the only thing wrong with in the Morales case.

Like most death row inmates, Morales is indigent and was only able to muster $4,000 for his defense. His co-defendant, meanwhile, was able to spend $80,000 for legal help--and came out of the trial with a life sentence.

Like Stan Williams before him, Morales was sentenced to death on the basis of testimony from a jailhouse informant who was later shown to have lied. Consequently, Judge Charles McGrath, who presided over Morales' original trial, has called for clemency, noting that to execute Morales on the basis of perjured testimony "would frustrate the design of our sentencing laws, and would constitute a grievous and freakish injustice."

The state will have to go back to McGrath to get a new death warrant for Michael Morales should they come up with a new and "humane" way of killing him. McGrath will be required to grant the warrant or recuse himself.

"In either case," says Bybee, "we plan to keep the state's dirty dealings all over the news. If they want to torture people to death on the basis of lies, they are going to have to come right out and say so. And a lot of people who don't have strong feelings about the death penalty one way or the other are going to get very turned off."

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