Death penalty foe gets five years in prison

Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO -- As she was led off to prison in handcuffs Thursday, former inmate advocate Kathleen Culhane had few regrets about falsifying documents in an attempt to spare the lives of four convicted murderers.

Earlier during a brief hearing -- shortly before she was sentenced to five years in prison -- Culhane had called capital punishment “a brutal legacy of lynching,” adding that “I cannot have remorse for a government that kills at midnight and invests millions of dollars in the process.” When she left the courtroom of Sacramento Superior Court Judge Gary E. Ransom, she held her head high.

To prosecutors, Culhane had committed one of the largest frauds against the legal system in California history. A law school graduate and former San Joaquin County resident, Culhane worked as an investigator for lawyers appealing the cases of death row inmates.

What possessed her to invent declarations that were dispatched to the California Supreme Court, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the defense attorneys she worked for?


In an interview last week as she awaited sentencing, she said she was acting on principle when she committed what she called an act of civil disobedience. “I felt I had to try something proactive to bring about a sure, or at least a very likely, delay in order to slow down the march toward execution,” said Culhane, 40.

Was she successful?

On a gray and windy afternoon at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, Culhane, a petite woman with brown hair, blue eyes and an easy smile, acknowledged, “I don’t think I made a ping in the legal system.”

Defense attorneys as well as prosecutors said they were shocked by Culhane’s actions, which they said only compounded the suffering of friends and family of the condemned men and their victims by, as one put it, “trying to win on lies.”

“What she did is an affront to the entire legal system,” said Senior Assistant Atty. Gen. Mike Farrell. “The scariest people are the ones who think the ends justify the means -- that’s Kathleen Culhane.”

Also burned was former Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, who in February 2006 joined the effort to delay the execution of Michael Morales.

Morales was sentenced to death in 1983. His execution has since been postponed amid legal challenges to California’s application of lethal injections.

Starr declined to comment on Culhane’s sentencing, except to say, through a spokeswoman, that her case was “ineffably sad.”


Culhane’s closest friends and relatives portray her as a compassionate woman who has always been eager to help those in need. In high school, Culhane joined a group that assisted disadvantaged people in Mexico.

Of her falsehoods, Culhane’s lifelong friend Mary Keelty said, “Legally, it’s wrong. But morally, we have to ask: Why is taking a life through execution righteous, and defying the law to save a life egregious?”

Later, Culhane worked as an investigator for prisoner rights programs, sometimes tracking down relatives and witnesses in the slums and hinterlands of Mexico, Central America, West Africa and Haiti.

In 2002 she went to work for the Habeas Corpus Resource Center in San Francisco.


In a frustrating legal world where the chances of winning a reversal in a capital case are nearly nil, Culhane said, “a delay was a win because it meant more years of life for the defendant.”

The pressure to stall was especially intense in the case of Morales, 47, of Stockton, who was convicted of the 1981 rape and murder of Terri Winchell, 17, a Lodi high school student.

In January 2006, a month before Morales was to be executed, his lawyers received support from a highly unusual source: The judge who had condemned him to die asked Schwarzenegger to grant clemency.

Ventura County Superior Court Judge Charles R. McGrath said in a letter to the governor that he believed the conviction was based on false testimony from a jailhouse informant.


Armed with McGrath’s letter, Culhane tracked down the jurors who had convicted Morales in hopes they would agree with the judge. They didn’t.

Frustrated and desperate, Culhane said she holed up in an Oxnard hotel room and “spent a few all-nighters” composing a series of bogus affidavits and declarations to suggest that five jurors questioned whether Morales was guilty.

“I turned them in to the defense team over the course of a week,” she said. “The lawyers seemed pleased.”

But not for long. The scheme unraveled when the five jurors told prosecutors under oath that they had never been contacted by anyone from the Morales legal team and had no idea who Culhane was.


Culhane also said in sworn declarations that she had met several times with a key witness in the case, Patricia Felix, in January 2006 at her Stockton home.

Felix had not lived at the address Culhane cited since 2005.

Initially, defense attorney David Senior refused to believe that his investigator had lied. But after reviewing the evidence provided by prosecutors, Senior recalled, the truth sank in.

“It took us one hour and 45 minutes to withdraw anything associated with her from our case files,” Senior said.


A one-year investigation culminated in a 45-count, 17-page complaint against her. Under terms of a settlement deal, Culhane pleaded guilty to two counts of forgery, one count of perjury and one count of filing false documents.

Looking back, Culhane said she felt “betrayed by former colleagues” who “rolled over for the prosecution” and actively assisted in the case against her.

“I didn’t expect that,” she said.

Culhane says she is prepared for prison.


“After I turned myself in [in February 2006], the guards referred to me as a celebrity case, which was a drag because the other prisoners didn’t like that,” she recalled. “But when I told one prisoner what I’d done, she said, ‘Right on.’ ”