Friday, March 09, 2007

Update: NC's Death Penalty

The State's Department of Correction has filed a lawsuit which asks the courts to strip the North Carolina Medical Board of its power to discipline physicians who participate in executions. The board adopted a new policy in January, which stated that taking part in an execution would violate a doctor's ethical code of conduct and could result in a suspension of his or her license. This new policy has, in essence, halted North Carolina's death penalty, and thus far, has put five executions on hold. The Department of Correction filed this lawsuit hoping to resolve the impasse in time to have carried out the scheduled execution of Allen Richard Holman at 2 a.m. today.

On Tuesday, state officials argued that executions aren't medical procedures, and therefore don't fall under the medical board's jurisdiction so scheduled executions could resume. State law requires that a doctor be present at an execution to ensure that the condemned inmate doesn't suffer. But last year, a federal judge allowed an execution to go forward only after the state said a doctor would monitor the inmate to ensure he didn't feel pain as officials injected him with a combination of three deadly chemicals.

A Wake County judge last month halted several planned executions, ruling that the medical board's policy conflicted with the state law. State officials would need to adopt a new protocol to get around the policy, the judge said. The Council of State, which is made up of the Governor, Lt. Governor, Attorney General and other statewide elected officials, subsequently adopted a new protocol that actually increased the role of physicians in executions. Previously, a nurse or emergency medical technician monitored the inmate's body function, but the new rules called for a doctor to handle those duties and to halt any execution if it appeared the prisoner was suffering.

Challenges to lethal injection, namely, whether it violates the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, have effectively placed executions on hold in 11 states. The question of doctor participation has figured in some of those disputes. In order to resolve these issues in North Carolina, the courts and/or the General Assembly will need to act.

Verla Insko (D-Orange) and I have filed House Bill 553, which would prohibit the execution of a defendant who had a severe mental disability at the time of the commission of the crime.

Several additional measures recommended by the House Select Committee on Capital Punishment, intending to reform the administration of the death penalty, will be introduced next week.

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