CALIFORNIA is living up to its reputation for initiating legal, social and political trends — or, in this case, prompting reconsideration of an existing one.

Last week's suspended state execution of convicted murderer Michael Morales, 46, raised questions about the future of the death penalty, lethal injections and the role doctors and should play in such cases. Some of the issues may not stop ascending the judicial ladder until they reach the U.S. Supreme Court. (Morales was convicted in 1983 of the brutal rape, torture and murder of Lodi teenager Terri Winchell.)

Our nation's highest tribunal has never ruled on the constitutionality of lethal injections. Perhaps getting it to do so is what U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel had in mind when he ordered that a person with medical training be present at Morales' execution to determine if the three-step injection process violates the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment ban on "cruel and unusual punishment."

That doctors refused to participate shouldn't have been surprising. Dr. Michael Sexton, president of the California Medical Association, said, "Legal execution is not a medical procedure, it's not a medical task."

The fact that no medical personnel would be part of the execution effectively suspended such events in our state until at least after a May hearing in Fogel's San Jose court — and probably longer.


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It also casts a cloud of doubt over the future of lethal injections — the preferred method of execution in 37 of 38 states with capital punishment. CMA-proposed legislation would bar physicians from participating in or attending executions.

As a result, the future of executions in California is in limbo and the use of lethal injections in as many as 37 states may be in doubt.

The unusual sequence also raised questions about whether a convicted murderer has the right to a painless execution under the Eighth Amendment. Is it possible? Perhaps the goal should be to alleviate unnecessary pain and suffering.

Under that standard, lethal injections might be salvageable. They've been used in California since 1996, after a federal judge and appeals court found that the gas chamber at San Quentin posed an undue risk of a painful death.

Last week's events set the stage for showdowns on such issues. But reversing or suspending California's stand on capital punishment, as some suggest, should not be done unilaterally by lawmakers. The public must participate in the process, and the matter should probably be put to a public vote.

If Californians prefer to keep capital punishment, it's probably best not to put doctors in the untenable position of participating in executions that conflict with their ethical and professional training to preserve life. Technicians should be able to fill the void that creates.

By February, lethal injections had been used in 841 executions nationally. Another 650 condemned California inmates await resolution of the issues raised by Morales' attorneys, Judge Fogel and the medical profession. Odds are that their ultimate fates won't be determined soon.