Two Families Suffer On
By Helen Keeler
02 March, 2006
It’s fair to say that no one enjoyed the chaos that ensued from the scheduled execution of Michael Morales last month. Not the prison staff, who struggled to carry out a hastily concocted solution to the previous flawed execution procedure. Not the many members of the press who were trying to keep up with the ever-changing arrangements. Not Morales himself, who had eaten what he thought was his last meal and was being held in a bare cell, waiting for the guard to come and turn him into a dead man walking.
Two families watched the unfolding events with fraught emotions, hardly able to take it in.
The loved ones of Terri Winchell had waited 25 years for this event, which held the promise of some sort of closure to their decades of grieving. Her brothers were at the prison and first had to wait while the anaesthesiologists discussed and then rejected plans for their participation and later had to get a hotel room only to return later in the day to be told that the execution for the time being at least was off. Barbara Christian and Mack Winchell - Terri’s parents - waited by the phone for hours for word from their sons. Terri’s best friend Christina Salaices-Landre had flown in from the Midwest to witness the execution. It was further stress for these people who have already suffered too much.
Meanwhile, the family and loved ones of Mike Morales were going through a different but equally traumatic ordeal. They too have spent 25 years anticipating this moment. Following Terri’s murder, like the Winchell family, the Morales family also asked themselves ‘How could this have happened?’ The trial and subsequent years have brought stress and anguish to them too. They understand that the public has the family of the victim foremost in mind and seek neither sympathy nor publicity for themselves. But the fact remains: they too are innocent victims in this. They neither caused nor chose this path.
In that latter point, I differ from the rest of Mike’s loved ones. I am a close friend of his, but we only got to know each other 13 years ago, when he was already on Death Row. My life has been in turmoil these past few weeks, trying to prepare for the events as I expected them to happen and at the same time attempting to keep up with the ever-changing situation. I have hardly slept and missed many meals. I have lost weight. At times I have wept in despair – into the dishwater, in bed late at night or quietly at my computer as I wrote. I spoke to him in the 24 hours before he expected to die, but couldn’t bring myself to end the conversation with the word ‘goodbye.’ But really, I am not deserving of any sympathy because, perhaps uniquely, I did choose to be in this situation. When I started corresponding with him, despite being a naïve 18-year-old, I knew I was befriending a condemned man. Despite the hurt, I don’t regret my decision to write to Mike for a moment. Our friendship, like glimpses of bright, shining sunlight through the storm clouds, has shown that something positive can come from that which is dark and unpleasant.
Mike’s reported ‘nonchalance’ when told of the first delay in his execution was more to do with his being mentally and spiritually prepared for his own death. Speaking to him in the hours before he was due to die, he was at pains to put across the fact that he was dealing with the situation. Mike knew that all details would be reported and would have wanted his family to know in the event of his death that the delay did not adversely affect him. And so he appears flippant when the execution time was originally moved an hour, when actually this is not the case. He regrets not just what he did to the victim and her family, but what he has done to his own.
What nobody expected was the drama that has surrounded this execution. A faulty procedure was replaced by an inadequate remedy and where we go from here is anyone’s guess.
One thing is for sure: no one was served well by the events of Tuesday 21 February and what transpired has left its mark on both the Winchell and the Morales families.