SAN QUENTIN, Calif. - A convicted killer's execution was postponed for the second time in less than a day amid continuing concerns over the constitutionality of the state's lethal injection policy.
An hour before Michael Morales was to be strapped to a gurney in the death chamber at San Quentin Prison, officials called off the execution, saying they could not comply with a judge's recent order to have a medical provider administer the fatal dose of barbiturate.
"We were not able to find a licensed professional that was willing to inject medication intravenously, ending the life of a human being," San Quentin spokesman Vernell Crittendon said Tuesday evening.
Morales, who was sent to death row for torturing, raping and murdering a 17-year-old girl, originally was supposed to be executed just after midnight Monday. The warden had to suspend that plan when a pair of anesthesiologists who were hired to make sure Morales did not feel any pain balked at the last minute.
Both snags stemmed from a federal judge's order requiring the state to change the way it carries out lethal injections. Like 35 other states, California in the past gave its prisoners three separate drugs - one to relax them, another to paralyze them and a third to stop their hearts.
Ruling earlier this month on a defense motion that the procedure ran afoul of the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel gave officials a choice: either bring in doctors to ensure Morales was properly anesthetized, or skip the usual paralyzing and heart-stopping drugs and execute him with an overdose of a sedative.
The state initially elected to go with the first option, but ran into trouble when the two anesthesiologists backed out. They said they were uncomfortable taking a more active role in the execution because they might have to order more sedative if the initial dose did not put Morales completely out.
Prison officials rescheduled the execution for Tuesday night after settling on the second choice - killing Morales with a single injection of the sedative. No other state executes inmates under that procedure, which would take about half an hour to work compared to about 10 minutes with the three-drug method.
Fogel approved that plan Tuesday afternoon, but said the sedative must be administered in the execution chamber by a person who was licensed by the state to inject medications intravenously, a group that includes doctors, nurses, dentists and other medical technicians.
Yet with only hours to go before the death warrant on Morales expired at 11:59 p.m., San Quentin could not find a licensed professional despite "exploring all the options available," Crittendon said.
Barbara Christian, the mother of Morales' victim, said she was angry and disappointed by yet another postponement, which prison officials said would last indefinitely.
"We just want to get this out of our heads and out of our lives," said Christian. "The whole justice system, it's ridiculous... The victims are going through more pain than the murderer."
One of Morales' attorneys, Ben Weston, said the delay "goes a long way toward demonstrating the state doesn't have its ducks in a row for humanely killing a human being. They haven't figured out how to do it."