Video: Execution Postponed

updated 2/23/2006 11:31:40 AM ET 2006-02-23T16:31:40

A death row execution in California put on hold at the last minute because doctors refused to get involved in the process.  Michael Morales was convicted of stabbing, raping and murdering teenager Terri Winchell 23 years ago.  He was scheduled to die Tuesday morning, then later on Tuesday night, but his execution ultimately stayed indefinitely because of a dispute over whether doctors could be involved in putting him to death. 

A federal judge had ordered a doctor to be there to monitor the execution, make sure the anesthesia was working so Morales didn't feel pain when he was given lethal doses of drugs that would make his heart stop.  But the doctors walked out and San Quentin couldn't find any others willing to step in.  The judge ordered a hearing on the issue for May.  That means his life is spared for now. 

San Quentin Prison spokesperson Vernell Crittendon joined the ‘Abrams Report’ to discuss the developments concerning the execution of Morales.

To read an excerpt from their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

DAN ABRAMS, HOST, ‘ABRAMS REPORT’:  So tell me exactly how this happened.  So the doctors are there.  This is for the Tuesday morning.  The doctors are there.  The anesthesiologists we think are going to be involved in the process and then what happens? 

LT. VERNELL CRITTENDON, SAN QUENTIN PRISON SPOKESMAN:  Well what happened was is once they had reviewed the opinion of the Ninth Circuit the anesthesiologist became concerned about their role as identified by the Ninth Circuit.  Specifically, the concern was is that they would personally have to intervene in the process if they found that Michael Morales was indicating any signs of pain or was regaining consciousness.  And they felt that this would—was clearly medically unethical for them to be directly involved in the taking of a human life.

ABRAMS:  How long before the execution did that happen?  Meaning, a lot of people are asking, why this took until the very last minute.  I mean you've got witnesses coming.  You've got family members expectations, et cetera.  And how long was it before the execution was scheduled that these doctors stepped in and said you know what we can't do it. 

CRITTENDON:  Well actually the discussion began just about an hour and a half before the scheduled execution that I became aware of that there was this concern.  The discussion went right up until about a little after 2:00 a.m.  And at that point, the anesthesiologists felt that they could not be involved in the process.  And that is when the warden then stood down from carrying out the execution and we rescheduled it.  But then there was a subsequent decision from a United States district court that then on the opinion of the Ninth Circuit, and the district court's opinion is the one that made it very difficult for the institution to comply.  And that was because they identified that it would require for lethal injection, a licensed medical professional, licensed to inject medication intravenously to carry it out. 

ABRAMS:  And you couldn't find one. 

CRITTENDON:  This order was received in the afternoon of the 21st.  And so we merely had a few hours in order to implement that plan.  And there just was not ample time. 

So at this point, as you know we're going to have an evidentiary hearing regarding the constitutionality of it. 

ABRAMS:  Right.  What I don't understand is why these doctors only decided to read the opinion an hour and a half before the execution is scheduled.  You would think that they would say you know what?  Let me figure out what I'm going to do first.  Then I'll tell you if I can come. 

CRITTENDON:  Well, Dan, as usual, you make good sense. 

ABRAMS:  Because it confounds me.  I mean I'm not suggesting that we need to get this guy executed so quickly, et cetera.  I'm just saying that in terms of the process, I don't get why this came down to the last second.  And then the doctors say oh you know what?  Oh well, you know it seems that we're going to be involved.  I mean what did they think that they were going to be doing there? 

CRITTENDON:  Well, I believe that once they had an opportunity—once they had reviewed very closely the opinion of the Ninth Circuit, that these concerns of their personal intervention into the process became a reality to them.  And that's what raised their concerns and brought them to the conclusion that it was medically unethical and that they may be putting their licenses in jeopardy.  And with that, they excused themselves from the process. 

ABRAMS:  Yes.  I think the licensing is a big issue.  It's something we talked about on this show a lot.  Real quick, Vernell, how is Scott Peterson doing, adapting at San Quentin? 

CRITTENDON:  Well, Scott Peterson is adjusting well.  You know he's still on death row.  And he's got a few years before he'll have his defense attorneys assigned.  So life for him hasn't changed.  You know Dan, something that was interesting that happened with Michael Morales this morning when going through the briefing with him of what life was like for him during this whole ordeal. 

And as he was explaining it, it was that he laid in the death watch cell there, laying on the floor, on the mattress.  And it was now getting close to midnight.  And he says he looked up when he heard some noise outside the death watch cell and there the officers walked in with the restraint gear, the leg irons, the EKG equipment hook-ups for him and then they just stood there silent.

He says he felt at any moment they were going to then say all right it's time.  Midnight came up and they never said anything.  He said he just sat there waiting and that 1:00, 2:00, and no one ever said anything to him.  And then after 2:00 a.m. one of them approached him and said, you can relax.  We're not going to execute you at this time. 

Michael Morales says I then laid down to think I could get some sleep because I was just exhausted.  But he says that the only thoughts he had was of the Winchell family and the suffering that they must be going through and his family and friends and the suffering that they were going through.  Because he says that he was prepared for this execution. 

ABRAMS:  Yes.  Yes.

CRITTENDON:  So it was kind of interesting to hear that his opinion.

ABRAMS:  It is and that's one of the things that's troubled me is the idea that the victim's family members are being told it's going to happen, it's going to happen, and then as a result of an issue with doctors, it is not happening.  And it's unfair I think to a certain degree to the family members.

Watch the 'Abrams Report' for more analysis and interviews on the top legal stories each weeknight at 6 p.m. ET on MSNBC TV.


Discussion comments