Jeff Ackerman: Death sentence debate forgets victim’s pain |

Jeff Ackerman: Death sentence debate forgets victim’s pain

I had to look hard to find out how much pain 17-year-old Terri Winchell probably endured before her heart finally stopped beating more than 25 years ago. Most of the attention of late has been focused on how much pain her killer may endure while strapped to a gurney inside San Quentin’s death chamber.

Michael Morales was supposed to be executed last month for killing the Lodi teen in January 1981. But his lawyers convinced a federal judge that there was a good chance Morales might feel some pain during the injection of lethal drugs, and the execution was delayed. State officials are now proposing changes to ensure Morales is unconscious before the deadly drugs are administered, a move that may or may not satisfy the judge.

Winchell should have been so lucky.

According to records, Morales was hired by his homosexual cousin to kill Winchell because she was dating the man he loved. That’s right. A love triangle with more details than we need to know.

Morales was a gangster who loved a good high. Especially if it was mixed with some violence. His cousin (Ricky Ortega) picked Winchell up at her house with a promise to take her shopping for her mother. When she got into the car Morales was in the back seat with a claw hammer, a belt and a 7-inch kitchen knife hidden and ready.

In a Feb. 20 story, here’s how San Francisco Chronicle reporter Kevin Fagan detailed what happened next:

“As night fell and the Central Valley tule fog formed, Ortega drove his car out of Lodi along lonely Peltier Road. According to court records they were a few miles out of town when Morales suddenly cinched his belt around Winchell’s neck and began strangling her. She fought back fiercely. The belt broke, so he pulled out the hammer and began bashing her head.”

Note here that he didn’t ask if she wanted a last meal or if she was feeling too much pain. And there were no lawyers, protesters, reporters or judges anywhere in sight.

“She screamed for Ortega to help and attempted to fight off the attack, ripping her own hair out of her scalp in the struggle. Ortega ignored her pleas and as Morales told him to keep driving, he smashed her 23 times in the head, crushing the base of her neck and bloodying her arms and hands as she tried to ward off the blows.”

You’ll notice here that her struggle was probably much more difficult than it would have been on a gurney waiting for the drugs to kick in.

“By the time Ortega pulled over at the corner of Bender and Peltier roads, 7 miles outside Lodi, Winchell was unconscious and slumped against the passenger door. Morales hopped out of the car, and saying it was a shame to waste ‘a good piece of a–,’ he told Ortega to leave the two of them, drive away and come back in 15 minutes.”

That’s the very same Morales who has since found religion. It’s amazing what you find when your life is on the line. Winchell found religion long before Morales bashed her brains in.

“Morales dragged the still-unconscious Winchell face-down across the road into a vineyard. There, in the chilly darkness, he stripped her of everything but her sweater and bra, which he pulled up to her neck. Then he flipped her on her back and raped her in the dirt.”

In the dirt. Between two rows of grapevines. Like a beast.

“Just before he headed back to the road, he plunged his knife four times into her chest to make sure she was dead.”

That was a quarter of a century ago, folks. A jury sentenced him to death two years later and here we sit, wondering if the lethal injections might cause him some pain or discomfort.

That in spite of overwhelming public support for the death penalty. Even in California, the most “politically correct” state in the nation. Just last month a Field Poll found that 63 percent of Californians support the death penalty (32 percent opposed), a percentage that really hasn’t changed since the question was first asked some 45 years ago. And that number climbs to 67 percent among the state’s registered voters.

What’s the holdup? A few judges who can’t seem to sleep at night wondering if the killers might feel pain. A few judges who do not use claw hammers, rape and kitchen knives in their balancing test to define “cruel and unusual punishment.”

So the state prosecutors have been working on a process they say will ensure that Morales is sleeping like a baby by the time the lethal drugs are pumped into his body.

If that ever happens, I can only hope he’ll be dreaming about the young woman whose life he so horribly devoured so many years ago.

Jeff Ackerman is the publisher of The Union. His column appears on Tuesdays. Contact him at 477-4299,, or at 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.

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