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Prisoner claims legal injection cruel and unusual { January 23 2006 }

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Condemned prisoner claims lethal injection 'cruel and unusual'
By Claire Cooper -- Bee Legal Affairs Writer
Published 8:54 pm PST Monday, January 23, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO - Like so many other administrative complaints made by California prisoners, the one filed by Michael Angelo Morales this month is squeezed onto a one-page prison form.

But Morales' message sounds an unusual note of urgency: "My execution by lethal injection is imminent and will be a cruel and unusual form of punishment."

Morales has a Feb. 21 date in the death chamber for the rape and murder of a teenage girl in Lodi. In a neat script he explains his "grave concerns."

He fears that pancuronium bromide, the second of three drugs administered in executions by California and 26 other states - yet banned by the American Veterinary Medical Association in euthanizing animals - will leave him conscious of torturous pain but paralyzed and unable to cry out.

The issue has potential for postponing Morales' death and altering California executions. State lawyers have been directed to explain why they consider the paralyzing drug necessary in a federal court hearing Thursday in San Jose.

The lawyers, citing an opinion by Dr. Mark Dershwitz, contend in a brief filed Monday that "over 99.999999999999 percent of the population would be unconscious within 60 seconds" of receiving the first of three drugs, a five-gram dose of the sedative sodium pentothal, administered before the pancuronium bromide.

According to the prosecution brief, the lawyers also will challenge whether it's the court's function to suggest a "more humane or medically acceptable execution protocol."

Nearly three decades after capital punishment was reinstated in California, the constitutionality of using pancuronium bromide is one of several active disputes that could force systemic changes. Another, concerning the rights of foreign nationals, including dozens on California's death row, is likely to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court this year.

Other battles are under way or are brewing - defense lawyers have presented them to the courts but haven't yet persuaded judges to grant hearings, said Michael Laurence, director of the Habeas Corpus Resource Center, which represents California death row inmates in the latter stages of their cases. The foreign nationals issue is before the high court in cases from Oregon and Virginia, though most of the inmates who will be affected by the decisions are in California.

The question is the validity of death sentences imposed by states on foreign nationals who were denied consular access after their arrests, in violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. A decision is expected by early summer.

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