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Michael Angelo MORALES





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Rape - Murder for hire
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: January 8, 1981
Date of arrest: 2 days after
Date of birth: October 17, 1959
Victim profile: Terri Lynn Winchell, 17
Method of murder: Hitting with a hammer / Stabbing with knife
Location: Ventura County, California, USA
Status: Sentenced to death on April 25, 1983

background information


clemency letter


Michael Angelo Morales (born October 17, 1959) is a convicted murderer who was scheduled to be executed by the State of California at 7:30 p.m. on February 21, 2006. Two hours before the scheduled execution, the State of California notified the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that they could not comply with a lower federal judge's ruling that the execution must be carried out by a medical professional due to the chemical used in the execution.

Consequently, California has indefinitely suspended Morales' execution. The case subsequently led to a moratorium on capital punishment in California entirely, as the only legal method of execution must be carried out with the participation of a licensed physician, who are ethically prohibited from participating in executions.

The crime

Michael Angelo Morales has been convicted of murdering 17-year-old Terri Winchell on January 8, 1981, a crime to which it is claimed he has denied. Terri Winchell's boyfriend at the time was also secretly involved in a gay relationship with Richard Ortega, a cousin of Morales. Ortega hired Morales to kill Winchell so that Ortega could have a sole relationship with his male lover.

According to prosecutors, Ortega invited Winchell to accompany him on a shopping excursion. Morales, who was also in the automobile, attacked Winchell from the rear seat behind her and tried to strangle her with his belt. When the belt broke, Morales then struck her multiple times in the head with a hammer, beating her into unconsciousness, and crushing the victim's skull. Ortega and Morales then drove to an isolated area, where Morales dragged Winchell facedown across the road and into a vineyard, where he raped her and stabbed her four times in the chest. Winchell died from both the head and chest wounds.

Within two days of the murder, Morales was arrested at his residence. The police found Morales’ broken belt, containing Terri Winchell’s blood, hidden under a bedroom mattress. The police also found three knives, the hammer bearing traces of blood hidden in the refrigerator vegetable crisper, and blood-stained floor mats from Ortega’s car in the trash. Terri’s purse and credit card were also in the house. Ortega’s blood-spattered car was impounded. Morales had used $11 from Terri’s purse to buy beer, wine, and cigarettes on the night of the murder.

Trial and appeals

Morales has not denied that he committed the crime. His defense team argued, however, that since he was high on PCP at the time, the murder does not qualify for the "special circumstances" required against California state law for the death penalty. Morales' defense argued that the crime was not premeditated.

The prosecution countered with evidence showing that Morales gathered tools before the encounter, practiced strangulation on Morales' girlfriend and another female acquaintance, and confessed to an informant while in jail.

Charles McGrath, the judge who originally sentenced Morales to execution, has announced that he has had a change of heart in the case. He now says he now doubts the testimony of an informant against Morales.

Notably, the informant claimed that Morales confessed to him in Spanish, a language Morales does not speak. McGrath has asked Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to grant Morales clemency under state law. In addition, Morales has claimed that he has found God in prison, and regrets the crime that he committed.

Former Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth Starr is one of Morales' attorneys on the appeals. In February 2006, the defense team filed papers claiming that five out of the 12 jurors had doubts about sentencing him to death.

However, prosecutors alleged that all of the documents were forgeries, and one juror expressed shock on radio's John and Ken Show when told that she had allegedly been one of the jurors with the doubts.

Following that, calls were made to Pepperdine University, where Starr works, urging them to investigate Starr's involvement in the forgeries. After standing by the documents for one week, Starr and his team withdrew the documents. Ultimately, clemency was denied, but the phony documents were not used in the rationale.

Postponed execution

Morales' original execution date of February 21, 2006, was postponed as a result of two court-appointed anesthesiologists withdrawing from the procedure.

This is the first death row inmate since a judge ruled that the current combination of drugs may cause severe pain, as corroborated by an April 2005 study published in the British medical journal, The Lancet. The doctors cited ethical reasons for the decision to withdraw.

They had been ordered by the court to intervene in the event Morales woke up or appeared to be in pain. Since both doctors withdrew, California planned to overdose Morales on intravenous barbiturates, the only other option allowed by the court.

The judge further ruled that the barbiturates could only be administered by a "licensed medical professional," meaning a doctor, nurse or other medical technician legally authorized to administer IV medications.

In a sense, that qualification virtually assured that the execution could not take place. Having failed to find a medical professional willing to carry out the execution, California decided it could not comply with the judge's decision and would allow the death warrant to lapse. The death warrant will now have to be re-issued by the original trial judge, Charles McGrath, who has indicated that he no longer believes testimony from the 1982 trial and asked for clemency for Morales.


Michael Morales was convicted of raping and murdering 17-year-old Terri Winchell in January 1981. On January 8, 1981, twenty-one-year-old Michael Morales murdered and raped seventeen year-old Terri Lynn Winchell, with his nineteen-year-old cousin, Rick Ortega.

In early 1980, Ortega and a seventeen-year-old male named Randy had a homosexual relationship. During this time, Randy also had a dating relationship with Terri Winchell. While Terri didn’t know about the homosexual relationship of Randy and Ortega, Ortega knew about Randy’s and Terri’s relationship.

Ortega was extremely jealous of this relationship. Ortega and Morales conspired to murder Terri as “pay back” for Terri’s involvement with Randy. Ortega and Randy had a stormy relationship. Ortega reacted in threatening manner to Randy’s attempts to end their relationship. Ortega was also openly hostile towards Terri.

In the weeks before the murder, Ortega set up a ruse to trick Terri into believing that Ortega wanted to make amends and become her friend. Morales “practiced” how he was going to strangle Terri, and told his girlfriend on the day of the murder how he was going to strangle and “hurt” someone.

The day of the murder, Ortega tricked Terri into accompanying him and Morales in Ortega’s car to a remote area near Lodi, California. There, Morales attacked Terri from behind and attempted to strangle her with his belt. Terri struggled and the belt broke in two.

Morales then took out a hammer and began hitting Terri in the head with it. She screamed for Ortega to help and attempted to fight off the attack, ripping her own hair out of her scalp in the struggle. Morales beat Terri into unconsciousness, crushing her skull and leaving 23 identifiable wounds in her skull.

Morales took Terri from the car and instructed Ortega to leave and come back later. Ortega left and Morales then dragged Terri face-down across the road and into a vineyard. Morales then raped her while she lay unconscious. Morales then started to leave, but went back and stabbed Terri four times in the chest to make sure she died.

Morales then left Terri, calling her “a fucking bitch,” as he walked away. Terri died from both the head and chest wounds. Her body was left in the vineyard naked from the waist down, with her sweater and bra pulled up over her breasts. Morales confessed to killing Terri to a jailhouse informant, as well as to his girlfriend and his housemate.

Morales threatened both women prior to his trial so they would not testify about what he told them. Specifically, he admitted that he sat behind Terri after she had been lured into Ortega’s car, he put his belt around Terri’s neck and strangled her until the belt broke, he repeatedly hit her over the head with a hammer until she was unconscious, he took her out of the car and dragged her into a vineyard, he raped her, and he left her but then returned to be “sure” she was dead.

Within two days of the murder, Morales was arrested at his residence. The police found Morales’ broken belt, containing Terri’s blood, hidden under a bedroom mattress. The police also found three knives, the hammer bearing traces of blood hidden in the refrigerator vegetable crisper, and blood-stained floor mats from Ortega’s car in the trash. Terri’s purse and credit card were also in the house.

Ortega’s blood-spattered car was impounded. Morales had used $11 from Terri’s purse to buy beer, wine, and cigarettes on the night of the murder. Ortega, tried separately, was sentenced to life in prison.

Morales had been previously convicted of felony burglary on October 4, 1979 and sentenced to prison. Shortly after killing Terri Lynn Winchell, Morales was convicted of two counts of robbery for which he was eventually sentenced to state prison.

In that case, Morales entered a market to purchase beer. When a store clerk would not allow him to purchase beer, he left and later returned with two companions. Morales and the two others held the clerk, put a knife to his face, hit him with a milk crate and kicked him.

One of his companions then knocked down a pregnant female clerk who suffered numerous head and facial cuts. The total loss of money, merchandise and equipment damage was $2,529.

Terri Winchell’s family and friends, who expect that the execution will happen, gathered Saturday at her grave – some with flowers, others with balloons – to celebrate her life and say a final goodbye. “When we graduated high school, a lot of us put a white rose in our bouquet in honor or Terri. We’re still carrying our white rose for Terri,” said Trish Costa, a classmate of Winchell’s. “We’re gonna go to our high school reunion. We’re gonna look for our fellow classmates, the first thing on your mind is, Terri is not here.”

Terri Winchell's mother, Barbara Christian said, “I’m so glad this is coming to a close. All the news and notoriety is just making it like the crime happened yesterday.” Terri’s father, Mack Winchell, said she was a “lovely, vivacious young lady,” who always found time to spend with both her parents, who divorced when she was young. “In all of these years, no one has contacted our family and said sorry,” said Bradley Winchell, brother of the victim.

Brian Pratt, another relative, is unsympathetic to arguments by Morales and his attorneys that the execution ought to be called off. “I think they ought to bring back hanging or electrocution for this type of crime,” said Pratt. “He’ll get what he deserves.” Jacqueline Miles, a family friend said, “He’s the monster that killed the beauty, and he needs to pay for a crime that was senseless. We need to actually show the world that people can’t get away with murdering people just because they get mad.”



The victim, Terry Lynn Winchell


Michael Angelo Morales


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