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California Indefinitely Postpones Execution


The state of California has indefinitely postponed the execution of convicted rapist and murderer Michael Morales. He had been scheduled to die at 12:01 this morning by lethal injection. A barbiturate to render him unconscious, then drugs that would paralyze him and stop his heart. His attorneys appealed, saying that constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. A federal judge ruled last week that the execution could go forward as planned so long as anesthesiologists were present to make sure Morales remained unconscious.

But last night, at the last minute, the anesthesiologists refused to participate on ethical grounds. Today a federal judge said that an overdose of barbiturate could be used only as long as it was administered by a licensed medical professional, but now the execution is on indefinite hold. NPR's Joanne Silberner reports.


There's a lot of pressure against the involvement of medical professionals in executions. And the judge in California says they're necessary so the prisoner doesn't suffer. A study last year in the medical journal The Lancet analyzed toxicology reports from 49 executions in four states. 43 percent of those executed had not received enough barbiturate to make sure they'd be unconscious when they received a paralyzing drug and a then a drug that stops the heart.

In response to a judge's order, the state of California opted to have anesthesiologists on hand to monitor the process so that if Michael Morales regained consciousness, a physician could direct the executioners to inject more barbiturate. Last night when the unnamed anesthesiologists backed out, they described their concerned in a statement read by San Quentin spokesman Vernell Crittendon. Crittendon at 2:30 this morning.

Mr. VERNELL CRITTENDON (Spokesperson, San Quentin Prison): On February the 20th, delivery of an opinion by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals raised serious questions about a possible responsibility to personally intervene in the execution of Mr. Morales if any evidence of either pain or a return to consciousness arose. Any such intervention would clearly be medically unethical.

Dr. ORIN GUIDRY (President, American Society of Anesthesiologists): We're delighted that they decided to change their minds, because we think that was the right thing to do.

SILBERNER: Anesthesiologist Orin Guidry is head of the American Society of Anesthesiologists.

Dr. GUIDRY: Physicians are healers, not executioners, and we really are strongly opposed to physicians in general and anesthesiologists in particular being involved in this process. And it's really very unfortunate that they were put into this position in the first place.

SILBERNER: The medical community is united on this issue. The American Medical Association has a longstanding and clear prohibition against assisting in court-ordered executions in any form. So does the California Medical Association. Dr. Jack Lewin heads the CMA.

Dr. JACK LEWIN (Executive Vice-President and CEO, California Medical Association): We're not taking a position against capital punishment. But if society chooses to do that, they should keep doctors and nurses and other healthcare professions out of that responsibility.

SILBERNER: Lewin says there's just no way to do it without making the public in general, and prisoners in particular, nervous about what role doctors play.

Dr. LEWIN: These doctors oftentimes are taking care of the same patient as a prisoner prior to the execution for years. And it's a breach of trust between the doctor and the patient to be both in the role of the healer and then potentially later on the executioner.

SILBERNER: The California Medical Association announced today that it is sponsoring legislation to bar the state from involving physicians in the execution process.

Joanne Silberner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanne Silberner is a health policy correspondent for National Public Radio. She covers medicine, health reform, and changes in the health care marketplace.