The planned execution of a man convicted of raping and murdering a 17-year-old girl was delayed until Tuesday night after two anesthesiologists refused to participate because of ethical concerns.
With the execution scheduled for 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, defense lawyers requested a stay from the federal judge who last week ordered San Quentin State Prison to have an anesthesiologist on hand to minimize Michael Angelo Morales' pain as he was put to death by lethal injection. A second anesthesiologist was retained as a backup.
Although U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel denied the motion, both anesthesiologists withdrew, citing ethical concerns raised by his ruling.
The exact wording of the judge's order was not immediately available, but the anesthesiologists issued a statement through the prison saying they were concerned about a requirement that they intervene in the event that Morales woke up or appeared to be in pain.
"Any such intervention would clearly be medically unethical," said the doctors, who have not been identified. "As a result, we have withdrawn from participation in this current process."
The American Medical Association, the American Society of Anesthesiologists and the California Medical Association all opposed the anesthesiologists' participation as unethical and unprofessional.
Prison officials rescheduled the execution for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and said they would employ a different technique: administering a fatal overdose of barbiturate in lieu of the three-drug cocktail typically used in lethal injections.
Morales was told of the delay and was "relieved," CBS Radio News correspondent Tim Ryan reports. But Winchell's relatives were visibly upset, prison spokesman Vernell Crittendon said.
"There was a great deal of concern on their faces under the circumstances of some people that Michael Morales would not suffer," Crittendon said. "They find that to be very disturbing."
Morales' attorneys had argued that the three-part lethal injection cocktail used in California and 35 other states violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. They said a prisoner would feel excruciating pain from the last two chemicals if he were not fully sedated.
Fogel refused to derail the execution, but he gave prison officials two options: retain the doctors to ensure Morales would be properly anesthetized, or forgo the paralyzing and heart-stopping drugs and overdose him on a sedative. With the anesthesiologists withdrawing, prison officials said they would use the second option.
Crittendon said the prison has until 11:59 p.m. Tuesday to execute Morales. After that, the "death warrant" expires and officials would have to go back to the trial judge who imposed the death sentence in 1983 for another warrant.
Seeking another warrant could prove difficult for the state, however, since the original sentencing judge, Charles McGrath, joined Morales this month in asking Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for clemency in the case.
McGrath said he no longer believed the credibility of a jailhouse informant whose testimony helped land Morales on death row.
Earlier Monday, Morales appeared to have exhausted his options for a reprieve after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider his claim and the governor for the second time denied a request for clemency.
Morales was condemned for raping and murdering high school student Terri Winchell 25 years ago. He admitted to the crime, but in a petition for clemency that Schwarzenegger first turned down on Friday, Morales claimed that he killed the girl because he was high on PCP and alcohol.
Saturday, Winchell's family and friends gathered at her grave – some with flowers, others with balloons – to celebrate her life and say a final goodbye.
"When we graduated high school, a lot of us put a white rose in our bouquet in honor or Terri. We're still carrying our white rose for Terri," said Trish Costa, a classmate of Winchell's, in an interview on KXTL-TV. "We're gonna go to our high school reunion. We're gonna look for our fellow classmates, the first thing on your mind is, Terri is not here."
"I'm so glad this is coming to a close," said Barbara Christian, Winchell's mother. "All the news and notoriety is just making it like the crime happened yesterday."
Terri's father, Mack Winchell, said she was a "lovely, vivacious young lady," who always found time to spend with both her parents, who divorced when she was young.
"In all of these years, no one has contacted our family and said sorry," said Bradley Winchell, brother of the victim.
Brian Pratt, another relative, is unsympathetic to arguments by Morales and his attorneys that the execution ought to be called off.
"I think they ought to bring back hanging or electrocution for this type of crime," said Pratt. "He'll get what he deserves."
"He's the monster that killed the beauty, and he needs to pay for a crime that was senseless," said Jacqueline Miles, a family friend. "We need to actually show the world that people can't get away with murdering people just because they get mad."