Legislators will look at N.C. death penalty rule
By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on February 19, 2007 1:50 PM
It's not an issue that state legislators thought they were going to be dealing with when their session opened in January. But now, the question of North Carolina's death penalty has been tossed back onto the lap of the General Assembly.
"I think we will be spending some time on this," said Rep. Russell Tucker, D-Duplin County.
The death penalty issue was raised in 2006 when an inmate sentenced to die brought an appeal that death by lethal injection was cruel and inhumane unless it could be guaranteed that he would remain unconscious throughout the procedure.
In response, a federal judge ordered that the execution could be carried out as long as there was a doctor present to monitor the inmate's consciousness.
The state Department of Corrections agreed and instituted a policy requiring doctors to monitor inmates' vital functions during executions, but not to actually step in except in cases of medical emergencies.
The North Carolina Medical Board said, however, that doctors could not play any sort of role in an execution, which allowed the inmate's lawyers to return to court to have the execution stopped.
Since then, North Carolina's death penalty has been under a sort of de facto moratorium as three scheduled executions also have recently been postponed.
Earlier this month, the issue was brought before the N.C. Council of State, a board made up of the nine highest ranking state-elected officials, including Gov. Mike Easley, Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, Treasurer Richard Moore and Attorney General Roy Cooper.
They handed it back to the legislature for consideration.
Introduced last week, were two Senate bills regarding the death penalty -- one calling for a moratorium while a commission studies the lethal injection process and the other to protect any medical professional who participates in an execution from being punished by a state authority.
Those measures are drawing mixed reactions.
"I've historically been in favor of the death penalty," Sen. John Kerr, D-Wayne, said. "You've got to make sure they receive a fair trial, but the great majority of my constituents are for the death penalty, too."
And, he continued, while he admits there have been some recent problems ensuring that inmates are completely unconscious during their executions, he doesn't see why that couldn't be solved with a doctor being present.
"I don't understand it. I don't understand the problem with the doctors. Doctors have pulled the plug on a lot of people," he said. "I think it's a kind of subterfuge. I think there's a fundamental kind of people who don't believe in the death penalty."
Over in the House, fellow Wayne County resident Rep. Louis Pate, Republican, agreed.
"It's very interesting to me that these people can speak out about how a doctor participates in an execution, but then are silent when it comes to abortion. I think there's a double standard there," he said. "I would think we could have legislation that would say a doctor could be present and that there would be no penalties for the doctor performing those legal duties."
He and Kerr also wondered why the presence of a nurse or a physician's assistant wouldn't be adequate.
Still, other legislators think that perhaps a temporary moratorium would be the way to go -- both so the matter of the doctors can be examined and so the whole death penalty issue can be re-evaluated.
"I would like to make it clear. I'm not against the death penalty as such, but I do think a moratorium would give us the opportunity to look at some of the problems we're having right now," said Rep. Larry Bell, D-Sampson.
Sen. Charlie Albertson, D-Duplin, also said he might support a moratorium, much like he did when the matter came up several years ago.
His fellow Duplin County legislator, however, said that no credible evidence has been presented to justify suspending executions.
"The last time I was willing to vote for a moratorium to allow a study," Tucker said. "This time I'm not.
"It's been a few years and I haven't heard anything about a study so I am not in favor of a vote on that again."
But right now, the death penalty is still a matter that seems to be on the back burner.
"It's not something that I've studied a whole lot. I am in favor of the death penalty, though," Rep. Van Braxton, D-Lenoir, said. "But it really hasn't come up that much. There really hasn't been a lot of talk so far.
"I don't know if people are avoiding it or if it's just not on their plate yet. So far we've been working on getting committees assigned and all.
"It really hasn't been on the front burner, but I'm sure it will be."
But Pate thinks that the matter hasn't been fully vetted by the court system yet. For that reason, he added, it will probably be a while before the legislature begins any type of formal debate on the matter.
And even then, Bell added, the General Assembly's decision may not matter.
"My personal opinion is that it might have to be taken care of through the courts - whether the doctor has the right to do what they're saying or whether they can go ahead and execute them without the doctor," Rep. Larry Bell, D-Sampson, said. "I think it's going to play out through the court system before it's really final."
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