Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Death Penalty - Touched by Violence

          Disclaimer: This is not like any blog I have posted before. I am breaking one of my sacred rules. I never talk about politics. Politics piss me off, and I have never seen any political conversations that actually sway someone's opinion when people believe so strongly one way or the other. So I avoid them at all costs. However, this is personal. This blog contains my personal experience with violent crime and my personal beliefs about the death penalty. I am warning you ahead of time; this blog is raw, violent, and controversial. Read at your own risk.

          "Mom wants you to walk me over to my friend's house," my little brother came into my room interrupting my reading.
          "Why can't you go by yourself?"
          "Because mom said you have to go with me."
          I sighed and put my book down knowing it would be useless to argue with him. I was a sophomore in high school and he was in the sixth grade, and my mom had never liked either of us to be outside alone. As we walked, he told me that he had met a new friend at school who lived on the street behind us, and they had agreed to meet and play after school that day. When we got there, my brother rang the bell, and I was surprised to see a girl from my high school open the door. It wasn't just any girl. It was Terri Lynn Winchell. She was one of the most popular girls at our school. She wasn't just beautiful to look at, but she had a reputation for being incredibly nice as well.

          Terri smiled and said "You must be Brian's friend. Come in." She looked at me and asked me if I wanted to come in too. I told her I was just dropping my brother off. She thought I looked familiar, and I told her we went to the same high school. She said, "Why don't you come in. We can talk while our brothers play." I was a little nervous, but I joined her in the kitchen where we sat at the small dining room table and spent the afternoon chatting away. We laughed and talked about teachers, classes, brothers, and boyfriends. We found out that we both liked to sing at church and we were both altos. We also liked to play tennis. When it was time to go, she asked me if I wanted to meet that weekend to play tennis at our neighborhood park. I told her I would love to. She also told me to come back anytime. I left thinking I had just found a new friend too.

          At school the next day, I saw her and wondered whether or not I should say anything. Seniors often teased each other for talking to lower classmen. That wasn't Terri though. She waved and said "Hi Michelle! See you this weekend for tennis!" I smiled and waved back. I looked for her at school on Friday, but I didn't see her. On Saturday, I put on some shorts and a t-shirt and got my tennis racquet ready while my brother called to see if Terri and her brother were ready to go to the park. He came in to tell me that they weren't going to be able to go with us. When I pressed him for details, he said he didn't know why just that they weren't going to be able to go with us to the park. I was so disappointed. I couldn't imagine Terri doing anything that would get her in trouble. Maybe she was sick since I didn't see her at school on Friday. I tried not to think about it and decided I would ask her about it at school. On Monday, I got to first period and we were told there was going to be a special assembly in the gym. All the students were trying to guess what the reason for the assembly could be. After we were all seated, the principal told us that Terri Lynn Winchell had been murdered and counselors were available to talk to us if we needed. My body went cold and my mouth was dry. It became difficult to breathe. I could hear many of her friends screaming and crying, but I was too shocked to do anything. Most of the students just stared off into space trying to process what they had just heard. Over the next few weeks, we learned Terri's fate, and our lives would never be the same.

Terri was dating "Steve," a young man who was attending the local junior college. She was introduced to him by her best friend, "Charlene" who was dating one of "Steve's" friends, 19-year-old Ricky Ortega. She thought it would be fun for them to double date, but Ricky was often mean to Terri and didn't like when she was included in their activities. Terri tried everything she could think of to get along with Ricky for "Charlene's" and "Steve's" sake. What Terri and "Charlene" didn't know is that Ricky and "Steve" were having a homosexual relationship and Ricky was becoming increasingly more jealous of "Steve's" relationship with Terri. "Steve" had tried to break off his relationship with Ricky, but Ricky had threatened him including breaking his windows at 1:00am one morning. Steve was afraid and didn't know how to tell Terri or end his relationship with Ricky.

Ricky's jealousy grew, and he decided that the only way he could be happy was if Terri were dead. He didn't want to kill her himself, so he called his cousin, Michael Morales. Michael was a known gang member and no stranger to violence. He agreed to help Ricky and started to formulate a plan. Michael decided that he would strangle Terri and started practicing with a belt. When he believed he had mastered his strangulation technique, Ricky and Michael put their plan into action. Ricky called Terri and told her that he wanted to try to improve their relationship because they both cared about "Charlene." Ricky asked Terri to help him pick out a gift for "Charlene." Terri was eager to mend fences and agreed to go with Ricky to get a gift for her best friend. On Thursday, January 8,1981, Ricky arrived at Terri's house with Michael in the backseat. He had the belt he had been practicing with, a claw hammer and a 7 inch kitchen knife. Terri got in the car and the trio set off. While Ricky drove to a rural area a few miles from town, Michael attacked wrapping the belt around Terri's neck. She screamed for Ricky to help her, but he ignored her pleas as Morales told him to keep driving. She fought for her life. Her fingernails gouging chunks of flesh out of her own neck and tearing patches of hair from her head. She fought so hard, the belt broke. Michael picked up the claw hammer and hit Terri in the head, not once, not  twice, but 23 times crushing the base of her skull and causing defensive wounds to her arms and hands as she tried to ward off the blows. The cousins pulled off the road where Michael dragged Terri's unconscious body from the car and into a nearby vineyard. Michael told his cousin that is was a shame to waste "a good piece of ass." He told Ricky to leave them alone and come back in 15 minutes. Morales turned Terri over, stripped off her pants, pushed her shirt and bra up around her neck and raped her in the dirt. When he was finished, he stabbed her in the chest four times to make sure she was dead. Terri Lynn Winchell had lost the fight for her life. Ricky Ortega and Michael Morales left her naked and bloody in that vineyard. Ricky drove Michael home where he got drunk on the beer and wine he had bought with the $11.00 from Terri's purse. Ricky picked up "Steve" and had sex with him in the car.

Terri's mother was able to direct the police to Ricky when Terri didn't come home. He quickly confessed, and they went to Michael's apartment where they found the broken belt with Terri's blood on it hidden under his mattress. The blood splattered floor mats from the car were in the trash and the bloody hammer was in the refrigerator vegetable crisper. He still had Terri's purse and credit card with him. Two years later, Morales was found guilty of murder with the special circumstances of lying in wait, or planning the killing in advance, and murder by torture. He was sent to death row. Ricky received life without parole.

In 2006, executions in California came to a halt when the lawyers for the next death row inmate to get a lethal injection were able to get it stopped based on the fact that having 3 separate injections was cruel and unusual punishment. What if the inmate woke up? What if he felt pain? Executions are still on hold to this day because of that. Who was the death row inmate who has been able to put his death off another six years? Michael Morales. Twenty five years after he brutally murdered Terri Lynn Winchell, he has been able to extend his life another six years with the "cruel and unusual punishment" of the lethal injection argument. The irony is so thick you can choke on it. It would be funny if it weren't so ridiculous.

This November, they have pushed to have the death penalty back on the California ballot again having the balls to call it SAFE California. It is mostly fueled by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Their reasoning? It will save money because of all the court costs for appeals. What they don't want to tell you is that the ACLU is the one mostly responsible for clogging the courts with appeals and driving up the costs. Don't believe me? Look it up. They also don't want people to know that commuting the current 725 death row inmates' sentences to life without parole is going to cost taxpayers approximately $34,147,210 a year using the latest estimate of the cost to care for a prisoner in California. They are trying to lull people into a false sense of security by saying that the death row inmates will not be eligible for parole. However, that is not always the case. Former California governor Edmund "Pat" Brown commuted the sentences of 23 death row inmates changing their sentences to life without parole. At least 2 of those prisoners, Eddie Wein and Norman Whitehorn, did eventually get parole anyway. Both were longtime violent sexual predators and murderers. Within months of their parole, Norman Whitehorn raped and murdered Donna Jean Hooker, and Eddie Wein had raped and murdered Dorothy George by strangling her and dumping her body in a bathtub.

The death penalty in this state is only sought after in extreme circumstances. The prosecution has to prove that the murder was premeditated. Some notable death sentences with adjudicated special circumstances:

Lawrence Bittaker - raped, tortured and killed five teenage girls.

Richard "the Nightstalker" Ramirez - murdered 13 people in Los Angeles, sexually assaulting, torturing and mutilating many of his victims.

Richard Allen Davis - kidnapped, raped, and strangled 12-year-old Polly Klaas.

Robert Rhoades - serial killer who kidnapped, raped, tortured and murdered 8-year-old Michael Lyons as he walked home from school.

These are the types of violent criminals the ACLU wants to save. Many of the death penalty opponents hold up signs saying that all life is sacred, and I agree with that. Terri was a straight A student who sang in her church and  Michael Morales was a gang member living a life of drugs and violence. Before he killed her, if you had asked me if Terri's life was more important than Michael's, I would have said no. However, I believe that if you plan to kill another human being and you carry out that plan, you forfeit your right to live in a civilized society, and those offenders should be shown the same mercy they allotted to their victims. The impact of his actions has also had a devastating effect on Terri's family. Her mother has never recovered and her brothers continue to fight in court long after they should have been able to have some peace and try to somehow move on.

 Michael Morales has the ACLU and a bunch of anti death penalty people waving signs who haven't even bothered to find out why he was given that sentence in the first place. So who is going to stand up for Terri and the other victims of these violent (and in some cases repeat) offenders?



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  2. While I respect your experiences, and I agree that horrific crimes often DESERVE to be punishable by death, my one objection to the death penalty is the criminal justice system does make mistakes. It's bad enough when they let someone out after 25 years of imprisonment with an apology for locking them up for something they didn't do, but it is rather hard to dig up a corpse, shake his hand, and send him on his way. THAT and nothing else stops me advocating the death penalty.

    I don't really care how much it costs to keep them alive - it's worth it if it means we don't put to death an innocent person. The legal system is predicated on the belief that it's better to let a guilty man go free than lock an innocent one up, and I can't disagree with that. Sure, the victim and families of victims may be outraged if a guilty man walks free, but is it any worse than the feelings of an innocent man and his family when he is locked up for a crime he didn't commit?

    I do unequivocally agree though that men like Michael Morales deserve death. It's horrific that crimes like this occur, horrific that people think its OK. It's one of the things that constantly has me asking 'What's wrong with people?'

    So tragic that Terri's life was cut short in this brutal fashion.

    1. This is such a difficult subject to talk about. I want to thank you Ciara for taking the time to read this and for sharing your thoughts. I really appreciate it :)

  3. I agree with Ciara's point but reading this made me so angry and I felt sick that a human can do this to another living being. I just think they should die, the slower and more horrible the better. Karma doesn't exist. It is not just the victim who dies, but the happiness of the whole family is forever compromised. If the 'justice' system doesn't punish these people (and I use the word loosely) how long until the families of the victims step in and do the job themselves. Governments support wars (where money or oil are the ultimate goal) where it's legal to murder other innocent people and they don't think twice, but to kill one murdering scumbag has to be considered nine ways till Sunday - I just don't agree.

    1. Thanks Dionne. I totally agree with you. By the way, Michael Morales is nothing compared to some of the people we currently have on death row awaiting execution. Some of the crimes these people have committed would give you nightmares for the rest of your life. Yet they are able to live out their lives with food, shelter, medical care, gym equipment, family visits, cable television, conjugal visits, etc. Torture and murder someone and you get great care for the rest of your life. Nice message.

  4. I'm so sorry for your loss. This was very difficult to read, so I can only imagine how hard it was to live it. And even more so for Terri's close family.

    My instant/impulsive reaction when hearing about these situations is that these murderers deserve death (and then some).

    However, on the whole I am not a proponent of the death-penalty. It is a measure that we as a society should be above administering, no matter how instinctively "right" it may feel in these cases. Also there's the "what if they're wrongly convicted?" angle that Ciara mentioned.

    On the other hand, no murderer who has been rightfully convicted should ever have the chance to walk free again. THAT in my mind should be beyond any discussion. It is appalling that their right to re-enter society is even on the agenda at all.

    The post must have taken a lot of courage to write, thanks for sharing it with us.

    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to read it Daniel. I appreciate the support. I respect your opinion, and I'm glad that you feel comfortable enough to speak your mind. I really respect and welcome that.

      These extreme murderers - the ones who develop a plan to kill another human in a way that is so heinous often involving rape and/or torture (some even killing children)- are not like the guy who comes home and finds his wife in bed with another man and loses it, killing them both. They are people who see other humans as prey. The problem I have with keeping them in jail is that my tax dollars are going to support these people and so are the tax dollars of the victims' families. It's like adding insult to injury. These people are given food, shelter, medical care, cable t.v., etc. They are able to visit their families, get married, even have children - all while serving life in prison. It's ridiculous. The poor and homeless people in our communities do not have that much available to them.

      As I stated in my blog, we will be paying over $34 million a year to support these prisoners who have committed crimes that would make you sick to your stomach (death row inmates cost more by the way). Some of them killing more than once. California has had its share of serial killers. Michael Morales is a lightweight compared to some of these people on death row. I'm just wondering what $34 million could do if applied to schools, food banks, or any of the other programs geared towards helping the poor in our communities - people who have not committed any crimes. Why should we support these particular types of murderers for the rest of their lives? Why can't we use the money to actually help people who deserve it? Why can't we use that money to try to help out kids who are at risk in our communities, and try to prevent crime instead of supporting it?

      The argument about wrongly convicted people used to be more valid, but with DNA now, it is not as likely that the wrong person will be charged. Also, in death penalty cases, it is pretty much open and shut as it was with Terri's case. They only pursue the death penalty if they are sure and have the evidence to back it up. Plus there are many avenues to appeal the conviction and the sentence. In our court system, the burden of proof is with the prosecution not the defense. Our justice system has more holes than swiss cheese and is heavily weighted in favor of the accused not the victim.

      I don't believe that as a society, it somehow makes us less civilized to execute prisoners who plan, torture and murder other humans. As a society, we need to draw the line and say that if you commit such an incredible act of violence against another human being with malice of forethought, you may forfeit your life. I just don't think taking care of murderers like Micheal Morales for the rest of his life makes us better people or better as a society.

  5. I feel the loss here. Your writing captures every sad detail. I think of the families left behind after tragedy and how healing seldom happens. Thank you for having the courage to write about a very polarizing issue.

    1. Thank you so much for your support and kindness. This blog gave me a stomach ache. It is a very polarizing issue, and I did not want to talk about, but Terri has been on my mind a lot lately. Even so, it took me awhile to click the post button.

  6. You are probably right in terms of luxuries/living standards that are given to prison inmates, especially those who have committed something so unthinkable. I don't know enough about the US legal system and prison conditions to speak with any authority on this.

    Denmark has an even more lenient system in some instances (hopefully not for violent criminals) where many have compared a prison stay to a hotel.

    I do believe, however, that this is where our anger/efforts to change things should be directed - removing the rights we continue to give the criminals.

    Make life in prison a true punishment, rather than continuing to "pamper" the murderers at a cost to tax payers, adding insult to injury as you say.

    The sad truth is that executing the criminals does little to bring our loved ones back. At best it may give us a temporary sense of "justice done" or some sort of "closure", but it's an illusion.

    Although I also understand your financial argument (spending money on people who deserve it rather than violent criminals).

    You and I are speaking from a different place and have been affected to a different extent by violent crimes. I understand where you're coming from and won't press the argument, especially since my leniency stance isn't as extreme as I make it sound. For all I know, had I been exposed to the issue in a different manner I'd have a vastly different opinion.

    These are difficult topics and are probably far less black and white than we make them sound.

    I just hope that you and Terri's family can/have moved on the best you can. And I certainly like to believe that murderers get what they deserve one way or another, be it Hell, Karma, or something third, depending on our belief.

    1. Those are some great points Daniel. It's important to always look at both sides of an issue, so I'm glad you are taking a different stance and your points are well stated. It's true, this topic is far less black and white than we are presenting here.

      There are several things in particular that you said that made me think -

      Prison as actual punishment: I might feel differently about it if prison were really a punishment and prisoners had fewer rights as you pointed out. I do think that should be a consideration in our prison system. I think it is crazy that they are allowed to get married, have conjugal visits and even have children. I don't think they should have television and video games like they do.

      Not walking free again: If life in prison without the possiblity of parole really meant that, I would feel better. As it stands, the governor has the right to pardon people or change a sentence from death to life without parole. As I stated in the blog, there were several cases of this and somehow, those murderers were able to get parole and killed again. That scares me. I'm with you - life in prison should mean that.

      Getting what they deserve in the end: I do believe that. I believe that people who do so much evil without remorse will get what they deserve one way or another.

      Thank you for your kind words for me and Terri's family. I have been able to move on, but I have to say that it changed my life - to be exposed to that kind of cruelty at such a young age in such a personal way forever changed me.

      The problem with our system is that it never ends, which is how this came back to haunt me in 2006 with pictures of Michael Morales and Terri splashed all over the television and again with the latest death penalty ballat measure. There is always a hearing or an appeal and families/victims are constantly forced back into court to relive their nightmares and to watch the crimes rehashed on television and in newspapers. They are not allowed to move on. I guess that is what really breaks my heart the most.

      Thanks again my friend :)

  7. I just had a discussion like this on G+ a month or two ago. Someone I care very much about living in Iraq was victimized and most of his family (more than 30 members) were killed by Saddam Hussein. I can't imagine much more horrific circumstances, yet he is adamant that the death penalty is wrong. His stance has made me think deeply on this faulty system. I will unequivocally state that I'm a deep believer that these criminals should never be afforded another opportunity--how that is enforced though I now have doubts about. I'm still working it out, but at the end of the day, all victims and their families react differently. Maybe it should be about what they want and need, part of their healing process...they get a larger say in the sentencing.

    1. This is such a difficult topic, and our current system definitely needs help. Thank you for sharing, and my heart goes out to your friend. Your point about family involvement is a good one. Thank you.

  8. We don't have the death penalty in the UK. It was abandoned years ago, for the reasons Ciara raised above. This is a difficult issue. This crime sickened me to my stomach and brought tears to my eyes. As a mother and fellow human being, my istinct is to rip them from limb to limb, so I do sympathise. I'm not sure the death penalty is the answer though. In my view, prisons should be made tougher, so that criminals receive real punishment.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read it Jane. I was a teenager then, but now that I am a mother to a teenage girl, it is even more heartbreaking. I can't imagine losing my daughter that way. I agree with you - our prisons should definitely be made tougher.

  9. Hi, Michelle. I applaud you for being brave enough to post this. I'm with you on this subject. It's horrible moments like these (that sadly happen every day in this world) when it is so clear why God might say that He was sorry that He created man...


    1. Thank you Jimmy :) I didn't want to write this. I didn't even want to think about it again. I think that myself about God when I hear cases of such evil. Working in psychology for as long as I have it still amazes me the depths of cruelty humans are capable of.

  10. I've heard you talk about this so many times, but reading it was very powerful. I know it was difficult to share, but I'm proud of you.

  11. This is beautifully written. As well as such a challenging subject matter to write about. The research and way you went about explaining your opinions as well as the did an amazing job here.

    1. Thank you so much Jessi! That really means a lot to me :) It was definitely out of my comfort zone.