Execution Delayed by Doctors' Refusal to Participate

The execution of a convicted killer in California was delayed until Tuesday night after two anesthesiologists refused to participate because of ethical concerns. Michael Morales has been sentenced to die for raping and murdering a teenager 25 years ago. Renee Montagne talks to KQED's Judy Campbell.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The latest execution here in California scheduled to be carried out last night has been delayed until tonight. This last-minute turn in the case of convicted rapist and murderer Michael Morales came after two anesthesiologists due to be on hand for the execution refused to participate. The doctors cited ethical concerns.

We turn now to reporter Judy Campbell, of member station KQED. She's been at San Quentin Prison all night.

Good morning.

Ms. JUDY CAMPBELL reporting (Reporter, KQED):

Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Judy, before we talk about why the doctor's backed out, could you please explain to us how they became involved in the first place? That is, it's sort of based on the argument that lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment?

Ms. CAMPBELL: Right. Morales's lawyers argued that lethal injection is cruel and unusual because we can't be sure that the condemned man is unconscious during the process, and so he might be in extreme pain. And so last week a federal judge issued an order saying that the state would either have to change the combination of drugs it uses in the executions, or have two anesthesiologists; one would be in the execution chamber itself to confirm that the inmate was indeed unconscious.

The state chose to use the anesthesiologists. So they came to San Quentin last night to attend the execution.

MONTAGNE: And so why did they agree to participate in the first place and then change their minds, if you will?

Ms. CAMPBELL: Well, they said when they originally participated that they could do it because they would just be making sure that everything was working properly. But this morning they released a statement, after reading an opinion that came out of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals this morning that was a response to a last-minute request for a stay. And in that opinion, the doctors said, the opinion suggested that they could possibly, personally intervene in the execution if there was evidence of pain or a return to consciousness. And the doctors said that that sort of involvement in the execution would clearly be medically unethical. So it was different from what they had originally thought.

MONTAGNE: And of course, after they agreed there was a fair amount of controversy whether doctors should be involved in any execution under any circumstance.

So how will tonight's procedure be different from what was planned originally, last night?

Ms. CAMPBELL: Last night, that execution was supposed to have involved three drugs, which is the ordinary way they've been doing lethal injection. One would knock him out, another of the drugs would stop his breathing and the other would stop his heart. The change will be that only the first drug will be used, that's sodium pentothal, a barbiturate. That will be administered. And the difference is that it will take much longer.

So that drug will kill him, but it'll take about a half an hour for him to die that way.

MONTAGNE: But he will be unconscious for sure, is the idea?

Ms. CAMPBELL: That's the idea.

MONTAGNE: And just for a moment, take us back, remind us of Michael Morales's crime, the one he is going to be executed for.

Ms. CAMPBELL: Well, it was a brutal rape and murder in 1981 of a 17-year-old girl, Terri Winchell.

MONTAGNE: And his argument for clemency involved partly a change of heart and partly that he had been high on drugs and alcohol when he killed her.

Ms. CAMPBELL: Right. He was on PCP at the time, but he also says that he is now a good Christian and that he's reformed and he's expressed a lot of remorse for his crimes.

It was a particularly brutal crime, and the victim was a very popular, beautiful, church-going girl, and it caused a lot, it got a lot of attention at the time. So, his reform has not been taken too kindly by people in the area.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much.

Judy Campbell, of member station KQED on the line from San Quentin, California.

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