Page One

Death Penalty Foes Fête Partial Victory By Judith Scherr

Friday February 24, 2006

They had prayed and protested, gone to jail and gone to the media. On Tuesday, death-penalty foes celebrated a partial victory: the life of Michael Morales, the man who had stabbed, raped and bludgeoned to death 17-year-old Terri Winchell in 1981, would be spared—for a few months at least. 

“This gives hope to our whole country, because this is torture, this is absolute torture and that’s why we have to get rid of the death penalty,” said Cynthia Johnson of Kensington, who had come to San Quentin Tuesday evening with other members of the Berkeley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship to protest what was to have been Morales’ execution.  

“This is fantastic that one man’s life has been saved and that we’re one step further to eliminating the death penalty,” said Jes Richardson, with the St. Geronimo-based Ghandi Peace Brigade.  

Morales’ execution was first delayed Tuesday morning just after midnight when two anesthesiologists, who had agreed to monitor the execution by injection of a three-drug sequence, learned that they would have to intervene if Morales regained consciousness.  

The execution was canceled around 5:45 p.m. Tuesday. Earlier that day, U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel had ordered that Morales would be executed with a single drug, a massive dose of sodium pentothal. Tuesday afternoon, however, the judge added that the drug must be administered directly into Morales’ vein by a medical professional and not administered by others through an intravenous tube. No medical professional could be found who was willing to carry out the procedure.  

Fogel scheduled a hearing for May 2 and 3 on constitutional questions regarding the lethal injection procedure. Until that time, there will be no executions in California. 

“This makes our argument very strong that lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment,” said Crystal Bybee of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. “It’s great news for Michael Morales to get a stay of execution, but it also means something for people on death row.” 

Dr. Sureya Sayadi, who had joined the 40 or so other death penalty foes at San Quentin Tuesday evening and had protested at noon the day before with the group from the Berkeley Fellowship, was particularly outraged at the idea that doctors were being asked to help put people to death. 

Doctors learn to “do no harm, they learn how to help patents,” she said. “Even in times of war, if you see a patient from the other side, you take him as your patient.” 

On Monday, a dozen protesters from the Berkeley Fellowship blocked the east gate at the prison; three among them, Hal Carlstad and Cynthia Johnson of Kensington and Berkeley Peace and Justice Commissioner Phoebe Anne Sorgen, were arrested.  

Sorgen spoke to the Daily Planet by phone Monday soon after her release. “I can’t stand it that our state is an executioner, setting an example for our children and the world,” she said. “The U.S. did not choose to join the world in opposition to the death penalty.” 

The European Union has abolished the death penalty and all countries that wish to join the union must abolish it as well. Canada has outlawed the death penalty; Mexico did so last year.  

Sorgen said that at noon on Monday, about a dozen people blocked San Quentin’s east gate, in a symbolic gesture preventing entry of the medical personnel, who were to participate in the execution. When asked to stop blocking the gates, Carlstad, Johnson and Sorgen refused, were arrested and taken to the Marin County Jail, where they were cited for trespassing on state property and obstructing a public thoroughfare. They were released after being cited. 

Others would learn of their action through the media, Sorgen said. “People won’t feel such despair. It will give people cause to think and might push people to do something (against the death penalty).” 

Also on Monday, at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in El Cerrito, some 50 people of various faiths gathered to pray, light candles and speak about how to end state-sanctioned murder. Many then went to join the vigil of about 250 people at San Quentin. 

While TV stories show the pain and hurt of the families of the victims—Terri Winchell’s family spoke out, saying Morales’ death would bring closure to the family—two people spoke at St. John’s about their personal loss to violence. Murray Richardson’s son was beaten to death when he was 10 years old. 

“Years later, I was able to forgive the killer of my son,” he said. “My firm belief is that killing is wrong.” 

Deacon Thom McGowan remembers when he got the news that his grandson was shot to death on the streets of Richmond. Vengeance and more violence is not the answer, he told the gathering. 

“The cycle of violence in which someone decides to take revenge is contagious. That’s something we seem not to have grasped clearly. We need to follow God’s rules.” 

Father John Maxwell is pastor at St. John’s, where vigils are held before each execution. “Even with bad people like Michael, life is sacred,” he said. “We can be protected by throwing away the key (to the jail.)” 

St. John’s parishioner James Vaughn asked the congregation to sign a petition calling for a moratorium on the death penalty. The idea is to take a time out from executions “until we can figure it out,” he said.  

A bill, AB 1121, proposed by Assemblyman Paul Koretz, D-West Hollywood, died in the Assembly last year. On Tuesday, however, State Assembly members Sally Lieber, D-San Jose, and Koretz introduced Assembly Bill 2266 that would allow voters to decide whether to establish a temporary moratorium on executions in California. 

The moratorium would take effect in January 2007. The legislation must first be passed by the State Legislature then signed by the governor before going on the ballot..