California execution delayed after anesthesiologists withdraw |

California execution delayed after anesthesiologists withdraw

SAN QUENTIN, Calif. – The execution of a convicted killer was postponed early Tuesday after two anesthesiologists refused for ethical reasons to take part, renewing the long-running debate over what role doctors may play in the death chamber.Michael 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 the anesthesiologists objected 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 “As a result, we have withdrawn from participation in this current process.”The doctors had been brought in by a federal judge after Morales’ attorneys argued that the three-part lethal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.Prison officials planned to press forward with the execution Tuesday night using the second option.The judge approved that decision later Tuesday, but said the sedative must be administered by a person who is licensed by the state to inject medications intravenously, a group that includes doctors, nurses and other medical technicians.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 ultimately withdrew after the judge wrote that they might have to demand that the executioner administer more sedatives through a separate intravenous line to make sure the prisoner is unconscious.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.The U.S. Supreme Court has never directly addressed the constitutionality of lethal injection or whether it causes inmates excessive pain.Morales stood to become the 14th murderer put to death since California reinstated the capital punishment in 1977. He 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 24-hour death warrant for Morales was set to expire at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday. After that, state officials would have to go back to the trial judge who imposed the death sentence in 1983 for another warrant.However, the 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.Nevertheless, Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for California’s attorney general, said the judge was bound by law to sign a new death warrant, if one was requested. “There’s nothing in the statute that gives him any discretion,” Barankin said.When Morales was told of the delay, he was “nonchalant,” according to prison spokesman Vernell Crittendon. But Winchell’s relatives were upset because of the judge’s attempts to ensure that Morales not suffer, Crittendon said.”They find that to be very disturbing,” he said.—Associated Press writers David Kravets, Paul Elias and Michelle Locke contributed to this story from San Francisco.Vail, Colorado

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