SAN FRANCISCO — State officials on Tuesday postponed indefinitely the execution of a condemned killer, saying they could not comply with a judge’s order that a medical professional administer the lethal injection.
Prison authorities called off the execution after failing to find a doctor, nurse, or other person licensed to inject medications to give a fatal dose of barbiturate, said Vernell Crittendon, a spokesman for San Quentin State Prison.
“We are unable to have a licensed medical professional come forward to inject the medication intravenously, causing the life to end,” he said.
It was unclear when the execution would be carried out, but the delay could last for months because of legal questions surrounding California’s method of lethal injection.
The 24-hour death warrant for Michael Morales was to expire at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday. After that, state officials have to go back to the trial judge who imposed the death sentence in 1983 for another warrant.
Morales, 46, was supposed to die by lethal injection at 12:01 a.m. But the execution was put off until at least Tuesday night after two anesthesiologists backed out because of ethical concerns that they might have to advise the executioner if the inmate woke up or appeared to suffer pain.
“Any such intervention would clearly be medically unethical,” the doctors, whose identities were not released, said in a statement. “As a result, we have withdrawn from participation in this current process.”
The doctors had been brought in by a federal judge after Morales’ attorneys argued that the three-part lethal injection process violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The attorneys said a prisoner could feel excruciating pain from the last two chemicals if he were not fully sedated.
U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel gave prison officials a choice last week: bring in doctors to ensure Morales was properly anesthetized, or skip the usual paralyzing and heart-stopping drugs and execute him with an overdose of a sedative. The latter method is not used any other state.
Prison officials had planned to press forward with the execution Tuesday night using the second option. The judge approved that decision, but said the sedative must be administered in the execution chamber by a person who is licensed by the state to inject medications intravenously. That group would include doctors, nurses and other medical technicians.
The state notified the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals late Tuesday afternoon that it did not intend to go forward with the execution, said Cathy Catterson, a court clerk.
Morales, who had spent the day in the prison’s “death watch” cell, was relieved to learn of the postponement.
“He smiled,” Crittendon said. “He nodded. He thanked me.”
One of Morales’ attorneys, Ben Weston, said the decision “goes a long way toward demonstrating the state doesn’t have its ducks in a row for humanely killing a human being. They haven’t figured out how to do it.”
The judge’s ruling renewed an ethical debate that has persisted for many years about the proper role of doctors in executions and the suitability of the lethal injection method used in California and 35 other states.
The American Medical Association, the American Society of Anesthesiologists and the California Medical Association all opposed the anesthesiologists’ participation as unethical and unprofessional.
The anesthesiologists would have joined another doctor who is on duty at all California executions to declare the prisoner dead and ensure proper medical procedures are followed. The doctor does not insert any of the intravenous lines and is not in the room during the execution itself; typically the doctor watches the inmate’s vital signs on electronic monitors outside the death chamber.
Deborah Denno, a Fordham University law professor and expert on lethal injection, said Fogel’s order seemed “like a desperate measure.”
“These are not circumstances by which somebody ought to be executed,” she said. “It’s never been done before like this.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has never directly addressed the constitutionality of lethal injection or whether it causes inmates excessive pain.
Morales was condemned in 1983 for killing 17-year-old Terri Winchell, who was attacked with a hammer, stabbed and left to die half-naked in a vineyard.
Morales had plotted the killing with a gay cousin who was jealous of Winchell’s relationship with another man. The cousin was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
The victim’s mother, Barbara Christian, was outraged by the repeated delays.
“I’m totally disillusioned with the justice system. We’ve been waiting 25 years with the expectancy that he is gonna pay for his crimes,” she said. “It feels like we just got punched in the stomach.”
The trial judge, Charles McGrath, joined Morales this month in asking Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for clemency. McGrath said he no longer believed a jailhouse informant whose testimony helped land Morales on death row.
Schwarzenegger, who twice denied Morales’ bid for clemency, criticized the federal courts for becoming entwined in “the details of the state’s execution process.”
“I am confident that the convictions and sentence were appropriate in this case,” he said.
Fogel is expected to hold hearings in the spring on whether the three-drug method of lethal injection, as performed without anesthesiologists, amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. His ruling last week promised the hearings as an alternative if the state could not abide by either of the two options for putting Morales to death.
© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.