Judge wants Calif. death penalty issue to move forward

A Sacramento Superior Court judge has denied a bid from the state to toss out a lawsuit that pushes for the execution of condemned murderers

By Jennie Rodriguez-Moore
The Record

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A Sacramento Superior Court judge has denied a bid from the state to toss out a lawsuit that pushes for the execution of condemned murderers, such as Stockton’s Michael Morales, whose case has led to an indefinite moratorium on executions in California.

One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit is the brother of Terri Lynn Winchell, who as a 17-year-old was raped and tortured to death by Morales in 1981.

The California Justice Legal Foundation filed the civil complaint in the Sacramento trial court last November on behalf of Bradley Winchell and Kermit Alexander, whose family members were murdered in 1984 by Tiequon Cox, arguing the continued delays in carrying out the death penalty are denying justice to the families of the victims.

The foundation alleges that by not adopting a single-drug lethal injection protocol, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has not been complying with state law and a federal court order for the past nine years.

“They have not stated a reason, and that is one of the things that is frustrating about this whole thing,” said Kent Scheidegger, the foundation's legal director.

The state Attorney General’s Office recently asked Sacramento Judge Shellyanne Chang to drop the matter. But Chang issued a ruling late Monday, allowing the case to move forward and ordering the department of corrections to answer to the lawsuit — to defend itself.

Jeffrey Callison, press secretary for the corrections department, said that at this time, all the department can say is that it is reviewing the judge’s order.

Scheidegger said the ruling is important for two reasons. “First, the court has recognized that crime victims do have standing in court to require that the law be enforced. Second, the court held that CDCR does not have the ‘unfettered discretion’ that they claimed to drag their feet indefinitely.”

Morales, 55, who sits on San Quentin State Prison’s death row for the brutal attack on Winchell, was convicted in 1983.

Morales was recruited by his cousin Richard Ortega to kill Winchell, because he was romantically seeing the same man she was. Ortega wanted Winchell out of the picture.

Morales, who has said he was high on PCP at the time, and Ortega tricked Winchell into a car ride in Lodi. Morales attacked Winchell from behind. He beat her unconscious with a hammer, dragged her into a vineyard, raped and stabbed her.

Morales has exhausted all appeals, along with about a dozen other condemned prisoners, but their executions are stalled in litigation started by Morales, who claimed it was cruel and unusual punishment — banned by the U.S. Constitution — because of the pain it caused.

Morales was scheduled in the death chamber on Feb. 21, 2006, when state officials halted the procedure, saying they could not comply with a federal court ruling on the lethal injection process.

California has yet to replace its three-drug lethal injection cocktail with a one-drug injection being required by the courts.

Gov. Jerry Brown indicated about two years ago that he wanted the state to start exploring the use of a single-drug lethal injection method.

But Bradley Winchell said he and other families have been patient long enough and after two years of waiting, he decided to take action with the lawsuit.

“They’ve just been dragging their feet,” Winchell said. “They’re not going to play the waiting game until we finally say 'just forget about it.'

“It’s sad that justice isn’t being served. My sister needs justice.”

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