Killer’s Legal Team Backs Off in Dispute
Attorneys for death row inmate Michael Morales on Monday withdrew affidavits from jurors urging Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to stop the defendant’s execution amid allegations that the defense documents were forgeries.
The defense team, led by former Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr and David Senior, did not concede the forgery allegations, made last week by the San Joaquin County district attorney’s office. But Senior said defense investigator Kathleen Culhane was “off the case, and anything she touched is out of the case.”
In a statement later, Senior said, “We take very seriously the allegations made against the validity of certain documents we have submitted on behalf of our client, and have initiated a thorough-going internal investigation.” Starr and Culhane were unavailable for comment.
Morales was sentenced to death in 1983 for the murder of Terri Winchell, a 17-year-old Lodi high school senior. He is scheduled to die Feb. 21 by lethal injection, although a federal judge in San Jose is expected to rule as soon as today on a challenge to the method as cruel and unusual punishment.
Prosecutors argued that Morales committed the murder in an alcohol- and drug-induced hallucinogenic frenzy at the request of his cousin, who was angry at Winchell because she had seduced the cousin’s male lover.
A jailhouse informant named Bruce Samuelson testified that Morales had bragged during a jailhouse conversation that he had planned to rape and kill Winchell. A 12-member jury unanimously convicted Morales, now 46, and recommended execution. Ventura County Superior Court Judge Charles R. McGrath sentenced him to death.
During a post-trial investigation, the defense team learned that Samuelson claimed Morales made his confession in Spanish. Morales does not speak Spanish.
Citing this discrepancy, McGrath late last month urged the governor to grant clemency and commute Morales’ sentence to life in prison on the grounds that Samuelson lied about the defendant’s supposed confession.
Two weeks ago, defense lawyers submitted sworn declarations from five of six living jurors on the case echoing McGrath’s sentiments.
Then, on Friday, San Joaquin County Deputy Dist. Atty. Charles Schultz alleged that the declarations were a complete forgery.
He also submitted new affidavits in which the jurors denied asking Schwarzenegger to grant Morales clemency.
The jurors could not be reached for comment.
The jurors’ original affidavits were filed under seal, and prosecutors removed their names from the documents they submitted.
Senior insisted that Morales still has a strong clemency case. “The pivotal issue in the case,” he said, “remains the perjured testimony of the critical prosecution witness, Bruce Samuelson.”
But Supervising Deputy Atty. Gen. Keith H. Borjon blasted the defense team for submitting fabricated documents, including a declaration from Patricia Felix, a key prosecution witness, who had testified that Morales “practiced” strangling her with a belt.
Felix, he wrote, had signed a new affidavit saying “she had never been contacted or interviewed by anyone connected with the Morales legal team, and that her signature on the recantation declaration was a forgery.”
“In response to this revelation, the Morales team relied on a declaration from Kathleen Culhane, accusing Felix of being a liar,” he said.
“There can be no defense of inadvertent mistake, and the calculated intent to deceive is unmistakable,” Borjon said. “The false declarations are crafted with cunning. They are sprinkled with colorful, and even accurate details. The forger or forgers knew some facts about alleged declarants -- but not all. And that became their downfall.”
Legal scholars said the situation raised doubts about the veracity of all documents submitted by the defense team.
“I cannot imagine this happening with investigators trained and supervised by the state public defender’s office or the Habeas Corpus Resource Center,” said Gerald Uelmen, professor of law at Santa Clara University.
Schwarzenegger’s spokeswoman, Margita Thompson, declined to comment except to say: “We are continuing to review all materials submitted in this clemency matter but will no longer consider the declarations submitted by clemency counsel.”