In California, a death sentence with no date in sight

The death penalty in America
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Story highlights

  • It's been close to a decade since California executed a death row inmate
  • State's best known convicted criminals are far more likely to die in jail than face execution
"Death Row Stories" airs at 10 p.m. ET/PT Sundays.

(CNN)Michael Morales was supposed to be executed February 21, 2006, in California's San Quentin State Prison after a jury found him guilty of killing 17-year-old Terri Winchell. He had been convicted of beating her unconscious with a hammer, crushing her skull, then dragging her to a vineyard where he raped and stabbed her four times -- all part of a love triangle gone bad.

The execution, scheduled for 7:30 p.m., never took place.
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An hour before, state officials notified a federal court that it could not provide a licensed physician to assist because physicians were ethically prohibited from participating in executions. No one was able to administer the only legally available lethal chemicals. The case eventually led to the state's current moratorium on all capital punishment.
    It's been close to a decade since California executed a death row inmate, thanks in large part to significant state and federal legal challenges to its constitutionality as well as the years it takes to resolve each case.
    "A death sentence in this state really means life without parole," says Paula Mitchell, an adjunct professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
    There are 751 inmates on death row in California -- more than any other state -- and they've spent an average 17.5 years wading through the legal system. It begins with extensive jury selection for capital crime cases. Defendants often wait up to five years for appeal attorneys to be assigned, and even longer for the state Supreme Court to begin hearing their cases.
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    "The average time for the California Supreme Court to decide these death penalty appeal cases is about 15 years, but some cases have lasted 20 to 25 years," Mitchell says. "Other states with the death penalty, like Texas, have an intermediate court of criminal appeals to handle the direct appeals and lighten the caseload for those states' courts of last resort."
    Many of California's most well-known convicted criminals are far more likely to die in jail than face execution. While the state executed 13 people between 1978 and 2006, 49 died from drug overdoses, suicides and other causes such as cancer since the last execution took place. Richard Ramirez, the serial killer, rapist and burglar known as the "Night Stalker," died in jail after more than 23 years on death row.
    Other high-profile cases are adding years to the waiting list: Scott Peterson, who was convicted of killing his wife, Laci, and unborn son, has been on death row for 10 years. Richard Allen Davis, who kidnapped and murdered 12-year-old Polly Klaas, has been awaiting execution for 19 years. Kevin Cooper, who was convicted of murdering the Ryen family and whose case is featured on this week's CNN Original Series "Death Row Stories," has been on death row since 1985.
    Mitchell said she believes the lengthy process exists not just to provide procedural protections for the defendants but also because of the lack of political will at the state Legislature to restart executions.
    "Politicians get to say, 'We have the death penalty, look at all the people we have on death row,' but the delays allow them to spare the public from the gruesome act of an execution," Mitchell said.
    Statewide support for capital punishment has been steadily declining. A Field Poll in September found 34% opposed to the death penalty, and 56% in favor -- that's the lowest level in nearly 50 years. Voters narrowly defeated Proposition 34 three years ago, which sought to replace the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole.
    In July 2014, U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney ruled the state's death penalty unconstitutional because it violates the Eight Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Carney said inmates face sentences that "no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: life in prison with the remote possibility of death."
    Many families of victims who support the death penalty continue to pressure Gov. Jerry Brown, an opponent of capital punishment, to uphold the law by taking the necessary measures to restart executions. The Supreme Court recently upheld the use of lethal injection drug midazolam that many had argued was "cruel and unusual punishment," causing states such as California to move forward with finding a new court-approved, single-drug lethal injection protocol.
    "The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation should announce the protocol this November. The state will open up the procedure to public comment for a year, and after that district attorneys can go to Superior Court to set execution dates for condemned murderers," says Michael Rushford of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.
    That means Morales, who was sentenced to death 32 years ago, could see his execution rescheduled for as early as November 2016.
    "Many of these families have made reaching justice in their case their life's work. They see restoring enforcement of the death penalty in California as something bigger than justice in their particular case," Rushford said.
    Brown, who voted in favor of the failed Proposition 34's bid to do away with the death penalty in 2012, has pledged to uphold the state's capital punishment law. But as governor, he holds a trump card regarding all death row cases: He can try to spare their lives by commuting their sentences to keep them in jail until they die.
    That is, of course, if four out of seven state Supreme Court justices agree with him.