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Kenneth Starr asks Governor Schwarzenegger to spare condemned inmate

By Julia Cheever, Bay City News Service

January 28, 2006

Conservative law professor Kenneth Starr asked Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger today for clemency for a condemned inmate he described as "a deeply repentant, sorrowful Christian who has accepted full responsibility for a terrible crime."

Michael Morales, 46, of Stockton, is scheduled to be executed at San Quentin State Prison on Feb. 21 for murdering 17-year-old Terri Winchell of Lodi in 1981 by beating her with a hammer and stabbing her. Morales was also convicted of raping Winchell.

His clemency petition was submitted to the governor today by Starr and Los Angeles lawyer David Senior.

Starr, now dean of the Pepperdine University School of Law in Malibu, previously served as a federal judge, U.S. solicitor general and an independent counsel who investigated former President Bill Clinton.

The American Civil Liberties Union said on Thursday that Starr decided to join the clemency effort because Morales took responsibility for his actions, showed remorse and has tried to atone for his crime while in prison.

San Joaquin County prosecutors have until Feb. 4 to submit a response opposing clemency.

In addition to saying that Morales deserves mercy because he is remorseful, Starr and Senior contend in the petition that the testimony of a key prosecution witnesses has been shown to be false.

The petition includes an unusual letter to the governor from the original sentencing judge supporting the clemency bid.

Retired Ventura County Superior Court Judge Charles McGrath says in the letter that he now believes the testimony of the witness, jailhouse informant Bruce Samuelson, was false and that he would not have approved a death penalty if he had been aware that Samuelson was lying.

Morales' 1983 trial was moved from San Joaquin County to Ventura County on a change of venue.

Starr and Senior contend in the clemency petition that Samuelson's testimony was shown to be false when he told representatives of the state attorney general's office in 1993 that he and Morales spoke in Spanish when Morales allegedly confessed details of the crime in a crowded cellblock in 1983.

Morales grew up in an English-speaking household and does not speak Spanish, the attorneys say.

The petition says, "Thus, it was factually impossible for Mr. Morales to have made any of the statements attributed to him by Samuelson."

Samuelson's testimony helped to lay the groundwork for a death penalty because he said Morales confessed to having planned and intended the murder.

Those statements enabled the jury to make a finding of a special circumstance that Morales had been lying in wait, which in turn made it possible for the jury to give a death sentence, later approved by the trial judge.

McGrath wrote in the letter to the governor that if he had known about Samuelson's false statements, "I would have set the death penalty aside."

Morales' lawyers claim he did not plan the murder in advance and that he acted impulsively under the influence of the drug PCP and alcohol given to him by his cousin, Ricky Ortega.

Winchell was the girlfriend of a man with whom Ortega had had a homosexual affair.

Prosecutors contended that Morales and Ortega decided to kill Winchell in revenge for her having revealed Ortega's homosexuality. Starr and Senior say in the petition that Ortega and Morales planned only to frighten Winchell.

Ortega was also convicted of the murder and was sentenced to life in prison.

Copyright © 2006 by Bay City News, Inc. -- Republication, Rebroadcast or any other Reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.




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