When I was sitting in the airport on Tuesday, waiting for my delayed flight to Atlanta to board, there was a piece on CNN about the delayed execution of Michael Morales, a man in California convicted of the murder of high school student Terri Winchell in 1981. The execution was delayed because of questions over the ethicality of the method of execution, legal injection. Because of concerns about the possibility that the combination of the three drugs administered in the execution could cause undue pain and suffering, a federal district judge in San Jose ruled that medical professionals must be present to ensure a painless death. The two anesthesiologists hired to do so refused to participate because participating in the non-consensual death of another person is in violation of the core ethics of the medical profession. The execution is now delayed indefinitely.
The CNN piece that I watched consisted of the CNN anchor (I forget her name) interviewing a legal expert on the specifics of the situation. The anchor kept talking about how horrible it must be for the victim’s family, to see such consideration being given to the man convicted of their loved one’s murder when no such consideration was given to her when she was so horribly killed. The anchor also kept saying, over and over, that no one was disputing that he did it, that he in fact deserved to die.
However, at the bottom of the screen, the little news ticker kept reading that the judge who originally sentenced Morales to death was requesting clemency due to doubts about the validity of the evidence used in the case. This continued to run across the screen as the anchor continued to assert that no one questioned that Morales deserved to die. Had she not heard about this apparently crucial doubt shed on whether he deserved to die by the very man who had sentenced him to death in the first place? Or was it just deemed unimportant to highlight that piece of information?
Apparently, most of the mainstream media shares that anchor’s attitude, since the vast majority of the media coverage of this case has neglected to mention Ventura County Superior Court Judge Charles R. McGrath’s request for clemency for Morales, since he believes that the sentence was based on false testimony provided by an informant. From the L.A. Times article (emphasis added):
Bruce Samuelson testified that Morales had callously boasted during a jailhouse conversation that he had planned to rape and kill the teenager. The confession supposedly took place in a crowded cellblock that Morales knew was full of informants.
Samuelson explained away Morales’ willingness to talk by saying the two men spoke in Spanish. A later investigation by the state attorney general, however, showed that Morales, a fourth-generation Californian, doesn’t speak Spanish, McGrath said.
The false testimony not only persuaded judge and jury that the killing was egregious, but effectively canceled out Morales’ claim that he felt deep remorse for the crime, McGrath said.
… Samuelson’s claim of Morales’ “confession was the only evidence to support the single special circumstance — lying in wait — that made Mr. Morales eligible for the death penalty,” the judge added.
It’s true that no one – neither Morales, his lawyers, or other supporters – is arguing that Morales didn’t commit a horrible crime. However, it seems like many people, especially in the media, are losing sight of the fact that, even though a crime may be horrible, that doesn’t mean that the law proscribes the death penalty for that crime. I, personally, don’t believe in the death penalty at all in any case. But the law itself, even when it allows for the death penalty, has a very strict and specific set of criteria that must be met before the death penalty is even an option. And in this case, that criteria was only met because of false testimony, proven false by the state attorney general and obtained in yet another dubious deal between the prosecution and a jailhouse informant.
So, in fact, in the eyes of the state, Michael Morales does not deserve to die. Yet Governor Schwarzenegger has decided to ignore that fact and deny clemency. It seems that this man has been condemned in the eyes of the governor, the mainstream media, and much of society, and it doesn’t matter that, no, according to those very laws that allow the death penalty in the first place, he should not be condemned.
To me, this points to one of the major problems in the public discourse about the death penalty – it’s an emotional conversation, filled with the desire for revenge and retribution instead of the desire for justice and restitution. What this man did was a horrific thing, and therefore, people want him to die. Some people even want him to die a painful, horrible death, himself. Screw the law, screw the false circumstances under which he was convicted and sentenced, screw remorse, screw the seemingly careful consideration that went into establishing guidelines for when to apply this most absolute and terrible of punishments – just kill him.
In writing this entry, I found an editorial by Joan Ryan in the San Francisco Chronicle – “It’s about the killing, not the pain.” In it, she points out the strange contradiction of worrying so much about whether the method of death is ethical while not looking about the serious ethical implications of the act of killing itself. She focuses specifically on the fact that doctors refuse to be involved in executions because they deem them to be against medical ethics, and asks the questions: “What’s so different about the rest of society? Why is killing a fellow human being not beyond the bounds of our own ethical behavior?” Important questions to ask, especially in this newest context for the ongoing death penalty debate.