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A Speedier Death: The Battle Over California's Death Penalty 

Wednesday, Jun 15 2016
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At the stroke of 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday, February 20, 2006, Michael Morales was scheduled to die.

After 23 years on California's death row, following his conviction and subsequent death sentence for the 1981 rape and murder of 17-year-old Terri Winchell, Morales' stay in San Quentin State Prison would end like this: Wearing brand new prison denims and an incontinence pad, he would walk into a lime-green room with a person-shaped gurney in it. He would climb onto the gurney and lie down. After his arms and legs were secured with straps, a needle would be stuck into a vein in his arm, where he would receive an injection that would shut down his lungs and stop his heart in the name of the People of the State of California.

The U.S. Supreme Court had turned down his appeals, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had turned his back on his pleas for clemency. Morales phoned his family, ate his last meal — two pork chops, a B.L.T., a chocolate milkshake, and strawberry shortcake for dessert — and waited for the time to die.But two hours before midnight, two court-appointed anesthesiologists, there to oversee the procedure and ensure Morales did not wake up or suffer extreme pain during the fatal dosing — two things that a study in the medical journal The Lancet concluded are likely to happen when using the state's three-drug lethal injection "cocktail" — suddenly refused to participate.

California had executed 13 men since 1978, when the state reinstituted capital punishment (although it took until 1992 for the first execution to take place, after the condemned's lengthy legal remedies had been exhausted). Morales would be the 14th — and there were more than 750 on death row waiting behind him.

"Everybody's upset," Winchell's brother, at San Quentin to witness the execution, told the Chronicle upon hearing about the delay. "I guess they're just going to have to pump him full of poison one way or the other."

The state tried to counter the anesthesiologists' collective conscience with a proposal for a single drug injection — a massive dose of sodium pentothal, something that had never been tried before — but a subsequent court order said that, instead of prison officials, the drug would have to be administered by a licensed medical professional, in the same room as Morales, as opposed to feeding a tube running from an adjacent room, and wearing "appropriate clothing to protect their anonymity."

California rejected that proposal, and meanwhile, the clock went into the next day, negating the death warrant.

Morales went back to his cell on death row, where he remains today.

In 2010, the prison unveiled a new lethal injection chamber, with five times the space and two more viewing rooms — now smartly separating victim's family, inmate's family, and the press — than the one where Morales was supposed to make his exit. The state-of-the-art facility cost taxpayers $850,000, but so far, it's never been used.

Whether it stays that way or becomes suddenly very busy in five years is up to voters.

The messenger is conspicuous — not because of his message, but because of where he delivers it.

He's a clean-cut white dude of indiscernible middle age wearing a gray hoodie, and he's wielding a clipboard like a landing beacon, guiding those outside the sliding glass doors of Berkeley Bowl toward his petition. He advertises it as reform of the death penalty, a fix for a broken system, a way to save taxpayers millions of dollars.

It's a potent argument, as shown by the number of scrawled signatures he's collected. If he and hundreds like him at grocery stores, Starbucks, and bus stops around the state get enough of them, the initiative will make it on the upcoming November ballot, its fate left for California voters to decide.

What's odd, however, is that he's collecting signatures here, in this bastion of liberalism within a generalized progressive region. If he were down in Riverside County, where 44 death penalty convictions have been handed down over the past decade, okay. But he's in Alameda County, where only seven people have been sentenced to die over that same period. (Across the bay in San Francisco, only two people have been sentenced to death in the last 40 years, the latter back in 1991.)

This initiative — known officially as the Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act of 2016 — will fix the system not by ending the death penalty, but by allowing the state to execute more prisoners more quickly by removing legal safeguards.

While you can trace the origins of California's use of capital punishment to the posses that roamed the West or to the gallows at turn-of-the-century San Quentin, the fight over the death penalty is really a judicial struggle, so the story begins in 1972.

That April, the California Supreme Court ruled that the state's death penalty procedure — at the time, a mixture of electrocution, gas inhalation, and even a few lingering hangings — was unconstitutional. But a few months later, voters erased that verdict, passing Proposition 17 with 67.5 percent of the vote to reverse the decision.

Killing prisoners proved popular with the people.

Since the repeal 44 years ago, 13 people have been executed by the state — the most recent being 76-year-old Clarence Ray Allen, who was given the shot a few months after the most prominent, original gangster Crip-turned-motivational speaker and author, Tookie Williams, was executed in December 2005 — while 68 death row prisoners have died of natural causes. That is, if you are sentenced to death, it has become much more likely you'll die in prison before ever seeing the execution chamber.

The system had become satire. If the wheels of justice turn slowly, the gears of the death penalty rusted solid.

Fast-forward to summer 2008. As the junior senator from Illinois galvanized the country around hope and change, a bipartisan committee in California concluded four years of investigating the state's death penalty process.

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Rick Paulas

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