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Doctors refusal cause execution postponed indefinitely

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California postpones execution indefinitely
Tue Feb 21, 2006 10:47 PM ET

By Carolyn Abate

SAN QUENTIN, California (Reuters) - California officials postponed indefinitely the execution of convicted killer Michael Morales on Tuesday after notifying a federal court they could not comply with a court order that medical professionals assist in carrying out his death sentence.

San Quentin State Prison spokesman Lt. Vernell Crittendon said prison officials, who had delayed the execution earlier in the day, could not find a licensed medical professional willing to inject a lethal drug into Morales.

"The warden has chosen to stand down," Crittendon told reporters, adding that he expects a court hearing on May 2 or May 3 to review the mechanics of California's lethal injection method of execution.

Separately, the clerk for the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco told Reuters that California Attorney General Bill Lockyer's office had decided to postpone the execution indefinitely.

"They notified us they weren't proceeding with the execution tonight," said clerk Cathy Catterson. "Accordingly the state will not proceed with the execution."

Catterson said Lockyer's office informed the court it could not comply with a judge's order last week requiring the state to take new precautions to assure a lethal injection did not cause undue suffering to Morales.

Defense attorneys claimed last week that lethal injection was cruel and unusual punishment, barred by the Constitution.

This prompted U.S. District Court Judge Jeremy Fogel to order prison officials to either alter the composition of the lethal chemicals used in the execution or make medical experts available to ensure unnecessary pain was not inflicted.

The two anesthesiologists selected for that task refused early on Tuesday to be present to certify Morales, 46, was unconscious before a lethal injection was given, thus minimizing any pain. That forced prison authorities to delay the execution for at least 15 hours.

"While we contemplated a positive role that might enable us to verify a humane execution protocol for Mr. Morales, what is being asked of us now is ethically unacceptable," the doctors said in a statement.

Without the doctors present, the state sought court approval on Tuesday to execute Morales with a single dose of sodium pentothal instead of a combination of drugs. A U.S. District Court approved that plan.

Morales, whose attorney recruited former Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr to back his bid for clemency, had been scheduled to die at 7:30 p.m. PST (0330 GMT on Wednesday) for the 1981 rape and murder of 17-year-old Terri Winchell.

Her family was disappointed that the execution was postponed while Morales was relieved, Crittendon said.

Dr. Priscilla Ray, chairwoman of the American Medical Association Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs, last week condemned the ruling requiring the anesthesiologists presence.

"The use of a physician's clinical skill and judgment for purposes other than promoting an individual's health and welfare undermines a basic ethical foundation of medicine -- first do no harm," she said. "Requiring physicians to be involved in executions violates their oath to protect lives."

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had denied a request for clemency on Friday and two last-minute appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court for a stay of execution failed late on Monday.

(Additional reporting by Michael Kahn and Jim Christie in San Francisco)

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