Execution Delayed Indefinitely in California

California officials have postponed indefinitely the execution of condemned killer Michael Morales. Prison authorities called off the execution after failing to find a medical professional willing to administer the fatal drug dose.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Officials here in California have postponed indefinitely the execution of convicted murderer Michael Morales. They couldn't find a medical professional willing to administer the lethal injection.

The case has forced the state to find a way to execute inmates that doesn't violate the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Judy Campbell, of member station KQED reports.

Ms. JUDY CAMPBELL (KQED) reporting:

Morales was originally scheduled to be put to death at midnight Monday for torturing, raping, and murdering a 17-year-old girl 25 years ago. But last night, for the fourth time in 24-hours, the state announced it would postpone the execution.

San Quentin spokesperson Vernell Crittendon.

Mr. VERNELL CRITTENDON (Spokesperson for San Quentin Prison): We were not able to find any licensed medical professionals that were willing to inject medication intravenously ending a life of a human being.

Ms. CAMPBELL: This renewed debate over doctors' participation in executions follows a federal judge's recent order requiring the state take additional measures to ensure California's execution cause no pain.

At issue is the way California administers lethal injection; which is also the way 36 other states do it. Last week, the judge said there may be question of whether a sedative given to inmates before they're injected with painful life-stopping drugs is always effective. To comply with his order, the state brought in anesthesiologists to ensure Morales was unconscious, but they backed out, saying their participation was medically unethical.

So the state rescheduled for last evening, planning to use a lethal dose of barbiturate which would cause no pain. But in an order the judge said those drugs, if improperly administered, could cause brain death instead of killing the inmate. So, it must be given by a licensed medical professional. And once again, lethal injection butted up against the Hippocratic Oath.

President of the California Medical Association Michael Sexton says doctors have been put in an unfair position.

Mr. MICHAEL SEXTON (President, California Medical Association): Physicians are healers; we're not executioners. So that's the fundamental line. To participate in capital punishment, if you're a physician, is a violation of the most fundamental ethical principles we hold.

Ms. CAMPBELL: Under the judge's order a medical professional would personally inject the inmate with the drug in the execution chamber. That means it would be the first time in decades that a condemned man or witnesses would see the executioner; though the order stipulates that the medical professional could be disguised to protect anonymity.

Under the traditional method, an inmate has tubes inserted in his arms that lead to a machine behind a closed door.

Opponents of the death penalty, like Lance Lindsey(ph), with Death Penalty Focus, say personalizing the execution in this way could convince the public to get rid of the death penalty.

Mr. LANCE LINDSEY (Death Penalty Focus): It extends the debate around the immorality of the death penalty. It broadens the base of those leaders and professionals who are now being called to assist the government in killing prisoners.

Ms. CAMPELL: The issue will next be taken up in a series of federal court hearings in early May, over whether California's lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. State officials say they will not seek the new execution warrant for Michael Morales until after those hearings.

For NPR News, I'm Judy Campbell, in San Francisco.

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