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Death row dilemma isnt just for inmates

Jim PorterLaw Review

Michael Angelo Morales violently strangled and beat to death 17-year-old Terri Winchell, then raped her in a horrific crime for which he felt no remorse. In 1983 a jury convicted Morales of murder with special circumstances and sentenced him to death.

He appealed his conviction to numerous courts, including the California Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court, the latter on several occasions.As a death row inmate he was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on Feb. 21 at 12:01 a.m. Morales court-appointed lawyers, supported by the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations, sought to stop the state from executing him under the procedures set forth in San Quentin operational procedure No. 770, known as Protocol No. 770.Morales contends that the specific drugs chosen to put him to death in the absence of a doctor overseeing the execution creates an undue risk that he will experience unnecessary and wanton pain constituting cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth and 14th Amendments. If anyone deserves to die a cruel and unusual death it is Morales. This is one of those rare times that I would like to be a judge, in this case ruling on Morales hundreds of court filingsclaiming that being put to death by lethal injection involves unnecessary pain prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. It would be a short hearing.

Protocol No. 770 involves an extremely detailed Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (there is a misnomer) procedure involving syringed dosages of sodium pentothal to render the death row inmate unconscious, followed by injections of pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride, the latter to stop the heart from beating.California is one of 38 death penalty states that authorize lethal injections for executions. Ten states allow execution by electrocution, with Nebraska as the only state that requires electrocution. Five states allow execution by lethal injection or the gas chamber. Two states allow lethal injection or hanging and two states allow lethal injection or a firing squad. Im liking the firing squad myself. Morales battery of lawyers were successful and the state indefinitely postponed his execution after doctors refused to administer the injections. But it is just a matter of time.

When it comes to death row executions, time is on the side of the inmate. The average delay is more than 20 years. Tookie Williams waited 25 years. It has been 23 years for Morales.Scott Peterson will be in San Quentin for at least 20 years along with 641 death-row inmates the largest population in the nation. Statistically 63 percent of Californians favor keeping the death penalty for serious crimes, a percentage that has declined over the years. The racial composition of those on death row is 45 percent white, 42 percent black, and 10 percent Latino.

With 11 executions spread over 27 years, on a perexecution basis, California and federal taxpayers have paid more then $250 million for each execution. The California death penalty system costs taxpayers more then $114 million a year beyond the cost of simply keeping the convicts locked up for life, and that figure does not include millions more for post-conviction hearings per a 2005 Los Angeles Times study.

Michael Morales will be put to death soon probably by lethal injection probably in the company of medical specialists. He will feel little or no pain. Unlike his innocent victim.The debate over the death penalty will continue long past Tookie Williams and Michael Morales. The ACLU and other organizations maintain effective national campaigns to abolish the death penalty. I support abolishment of the death penalty. Ive come full circle. Not because it is cruel and unusual punishment, not even close; but because the death penalty is a broken system. It is divisive. It drains billions of dollars of resources. Twenty-plus years on average of costly processing and delays is inexcusable, especially for obviously guilty perpetrators, and in the end putting someone to death accomplishes little. Michael Morales deserves to die, but at what cost and benefit?I resent entitling Michael Morales and Scott Peterson to $250 million each of process entitlements, including automatic review by the U.S. Supreme Court. I am sure there are pro and con studies on the deterrent effect of the death penalty, but my own instincts suggest that criminals are not thinking about the death penalty when they commit their crimes at least with our dysfunctional system.The death penalty debate is legitimate, but to question whether Protocol No. 770 makes Michael Morales suffer excessive pain is more then I can handle. It is time.Todays column is dedicated to the memory of Gary Fish Fischer whose bright smile will be missed.Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon, with offices in Truckee, South Lake Tahoe and Reno. He may be reached at porter@portersimon.com or at the firms Web site, http://www.portersimon.com.


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