More than two decades after Ventura County Superior Court Judge Charles R. McGrath condemned Michael Morales to die, McGrath is asking California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to grant clemency because the conviction was likely based on false testimony from a jailhouse informant. Morales is scheduled to be executed on February 21. McGrath’s letter was included in a clemency petition filed by Morales’ attorneys, David Senior and Kenneth W. Starr, dean of Pepperdine Law School and a former federal judge.

In his letter to Schwarzenegger, McGrath said that executing Morales would be “a grievous and freakish injustice.” McGrath noted that in exchange for testimony given by the jailhouse informant, prosecutors dropped four of six felony charges against him. The informant testified that while he and Morales were together in a crowded cellblock, Morales confessed in Spanish to the rape and murder of Terri Winchell. A later investigation by the state attorney general discovered that Morales does not speak Spanish. McGrath’s letter stated that the informant’s testimony convinced the jury that the killing was egregious, and his testimony was the only evidence to support the single special circumstance that made Morales eligible for the death penalty.

McGrath told Schwarzenegger that California law requires judges to review the death verdicts of jurors to protect “the integrity of the judicial system, public confidence in the administration of the state’s power to impose death and the rights of defendants to individualized sentencing decisions.” He then added that had he known of the informant’s falsehoods, “I would not have let the death sentence stand, and the awesome decision to spare his life would not be before you at this time. Under such circumstances, executing Mr. Morales would frustrate the design of our sentencing laws.”

If executed, Morales would be the first Latino executed in California since capital punishment was reinstated. Senior and Starr note that the decision to bring their client up on capital charges was fueled by racial and ethnic concerns and that the district attorney who prosecuted Morales did not seek the death penalty in six other egregious crimes that happened during the same period, including the beating death of a black teenager by a white male.

(Los Angeles Times, January 28, 2006). See New Voices, Clemency, and Race.