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by Michael Kroll

The Popularity Of Unforgiveness

(PNS) -- If the federal court does not stay Michael Morales' execution, now scheduled for Feb. 21, on grounds that lethal injection is cruel and unusual, then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will be faced with his third life-or-death decision in as many months: Should he commute a death sentence into a sentence of life in prison without parole? In December, the governor rejected clemency for Stanley Williams, whose plea rested on his redemption based on the good works he had done while on death row. In January, Clarence Allen was put to death after the governor rejected his plea for mercy based on his advanced age and poor health. Both men insisted on their innocence despite the fact that both had been convicted of multiple murders.

So why should Gov. Schwarzenegger grant clemency in this case, when guilt is not contested and neither redemption nor infirmity is the foundation for the request? The answer is that in the case of Michael Morales, the very foundation of the jury's death sentence has collapsed, stripping the process of the reliability that such a sentence demands.

Even the judge who imposed the sentence of death against Morales, having learned that testimony the jury relied on to impose the death penalty was a lie, has now renounced the jury's verdict and his own part in a flawed process. In a letter dated Jan. 25, 2006, to Gov. Schwarzenegger, Judge Charles McGrath (appointed by Ronald Reagan) wrote that if he had known at the time what was later discovered by the attorney general -- that the witness was lying -- he "would not have let the death sentence stand... Under such circumstances, executing Mr. Morales...would constitute a grievous and freakish injustice."

How did this happen? The short answer is that when Michael Morales was arrested along with his cousin, Ricky Ortega, for the rape and murder of 17-year-old Terri Winchell and placed in the San Joaquin County Jail, an inmate named Bruce Samuelson was also a resident there.

Samuelson is a jailhouse snitch, well-known for his willingness to give information to the authorities in exchange for leniency. Samuelson has a long criminal record. His adult probation officer from 20 years ago, Vicki Wetherell, still remembers him as a person with "brazen disregard for the law or the conditions of probation," adding that "his attempts to avoid responsibility by making up obvious lies reflected a consistent pattern of deception and antisocial tendencies."

The use of jailhouse informants -- contemporaneous inmates who claim to have extracted the confessions of killers while awaiting their trials -- is a regular feature of death penalty trials. Samuelson told the jury that Morales had confessed to him in jail, and gave chilling details about how he planned the murder and how he boasted about it many months later. His testimony was particularly relevant in the jury's verdict for death because he provided the evidence of a "special circumstance" -- a requirement to elevate first-degree murder to capital murder. Calling it "the cornerstone" of the government's case, presiding judge McGrath stated: "Mr. Samuelson's testimony describing the confession was the only evidence to support the single special circumstance...that made Mr. Morales eligible for the death penalty."

At the time of the Morales' trial, Bruce Samuelson was facing six felony charges, which led Parole Officer Vickie Wetherell to recommend "immediate commitment to state prison." Instead, after writing to Morales' prosecutor promising that he could provide the evidence that would guarantee a conviction with special circumstances (death penalty), the prosecutor dropped four of the six charges against him, and managed to get court approval of a very light county jail sentence for the remaining two charges in exchange for his damning testimony. "I had no doubt that without the plea bargain, such a repeated offender would have been sentenced to prison," Wetherell has declared. "The fact that Samuelson escaped full adjudication and punishment was disconcerting."

But how do we know that what Samuelson told the jury was a lie? Because when asked years later by the attorney general how he managed to elicit so much damning information from the accused in a crowded jail cell without any other inmate hearing their alleged conversations, Samuelson boasted of his Spanish language skills ("I was very fluent in it, reading, writing and speaking, both formal and informal, or 'Spang/lish,' 'ghetto Spanish' and in educated Spanish") and asserted that he and Morales had conducted their confessional sessions in Spanish. There is only one problem with this explanation: Michael Morales, a fourth-generation American, does not speak Spanish!

This raises the question: How did Samuelson get the specific details about those involved in this crime if not from the defendant himself? Good jailhouse informants have become quite adept at gleaning details from the public record by passing themselves off as parties to the legal process or as law enforcement officials entitled to confidential information. Unfortunately, this is all too common. When 13 of those condemned to death in Illinois were later exonerated, the Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment found that nearly half were convicted as the result of false testimony of jailhouse informants. In California, more than 200 inmates have been released from prison since 1989 because of unreliable trials, and, according to a recent report conducted by San Francisco Magazine, one in five was convicted on the basis of false testimony of such informants.

The case of Michael Morales is exactly what executive clemency is designed to address, especially because, unlike those 200 California inmates who have been released, there is no remedy for the execution of a man who does not qualify for execution under the law. The basis of his death sentence was a lie. Gov. Schwarzenegger has the power to undo the lethal effects of that lie, if he has the courage to do the right thing, whether politically correct or not.

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Albion Monitor   February 13, 2006   (

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