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Death Penalty in Limbo After California Postponement


Two anesthesiologists threw the death penalty in California into turmoil this week when they walked out of the execution of convicted murderer Michael Morales. The doctors said the state crossed the line when it asked them to do more than observe. Now death penalty experts are wondering if other states will soon have the same problem. NPR's Laura Sullivan reports.

LAURA SULLIVAN, reporting:

When the anesthesiologists arrived at San Quentin prison they thought they understood their role, to confirm whether a lethal three drug cocktail had been injected into the arm of Michael Morales. But when it became clear the state needed them to actually monitor Morales' consciousness, they balked. So just after 2 A.M. Tuesday morning, the doctors handed the warden a note refusing to participate. That brought executions in California to a halt.

Dr. PRISCILLA RAY (Chairman of Ethics Council, American Medical Association): They carefully thought about the ethical position of physicians and decided that's not where they should be, that we shouldn't be in the death chamber.

SULLIVAN: Dr. Priscilla Ray is chairman of the Ethics Council of the American Medical Association, which includes anesthesiologists.

Dr. RAY: Doctors are supposed to be healers, not killers. The rest of our lives we can have whatever political views we want, but in the context of being a physician, we're to heal.

SULLIVAN: That's a problem for California. Last week a federal judge ruled that if the state wanted to use lethal injection, it needed medical professionals on the scene. Their job would be to make sure the drugs were not only working, but working painlessly. After the anesthesiologist walked out, the state was unable to find any replacements. Now, California can't execute Morales or any of its 650 inmates on death row until after a hearing in May.

Mr. RICHARD DIETER (Executive Director, Death Penalty Information Center): It's created some drama of whether we're going to be able to carry out the death penalty in the U.S.

SULLIVAN: Richard Dieter directs the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment. He says California's courts are the latest to question lethal injection. Missouri and New Jersey have temporarily halted such executions, and the Supreme Court is set to hear a Florida case about how an inmate can raise challenges over the method.

Thirty-five of 36 states that have the death penalty use lethal injection. But Dieter says the method has been rife with error.

Mr. DIETER: This is supposed to be a painless and quick procedure. It hasn't always worked out that way. Sometimes it takes an enormous amount of time. Sometimes the person's arm is unsuitable for an IV.

SULLIVAN: Kent Scheidegger is the top lawyer at the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a victim's rights group which favors the death penalty.

Mr. KENT SCHEIDEGGER (Lawyer, Criminal Justice Legal Foundation): I don't think a murderer has a right to a painless death.

SULLIVAN: He says the issues raised in California are not substantial.

Mr. SCHEIDEGGER: We previously had the gas chamber with cyanide, and we previously had the electric chair, both of which were painful methods of execution, and yet they were constitutional.

SULLIVAN: Under the current ruling, California will need to find medical professionals willing to be involved. University of Colorado professor Michael Radelet, has studied execution methods for the past 20 years. He says doctors have been asked in many states to pronounce death, but never to participate.

Mr. MICHAEL RADELET (Professor, University of Colorado): States are going to make sure that when they get physicians involved, that they're going to keep the name of the physician secret because any physician participating in any execution is now increasingly on notice that his or her medical license might be in jeopardy.

SULLIVAN: In the meantime, Michael Morales has been moved back to his old cell. He'll stay there until California, at least, can find a way to make its executions medically sound without medical personnel.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Sullivan is an NPR News investigative correspondent whose work has cast a light on some of the country's most significant issues.