Saturday, 27 January 2007

Council of State in strange territory

Council of State in strange territory
It usually studies land deals, not executions

RALEIGH - The Council of State usually gets together to talk about land deals and finances, not the death penalty and executions by lethal injection.

Now, however, this panel of state leaders has been thrust into the middle of a capital punishment case that could have profound repercussions on how the state executes prisoners.

By Friday, Wake Superior Court Judge Donald W. Stephens had halted three executions over the issue of a doctor's involvement in lethal injections.

On Thursday, when he delayed two scheduled executions, Stephens ruled that a state law requires top state officials to approve significant changes in the way death-row inmates are executed. Stephens believes such changes were made this week when, in response to the N.C. Medical Board's new policy, prison officials said a doctor would merely be present, and not participate, in lethal injections.

That's where the Council of State comes in. Prison officials could ask Gov. Mike Easley and the council to approve the changes in how executions are carried out.

The 10 elected leaders, including Easley, who make up the Council of State were still digesting the news Friday and offering little insight into how they might vote on the issue. The council's next meeting is Feb. 6.

"At this point, I don't have a stand on it," Insurance Commissioner Jim Long said. "I'm just starting to do a review on the issue."

Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry, who supports the death penalty, said she would welcome an earlier emergency meeting in order to "get this back on track for the state of North Carolina."

The issue may prove to be politically delicate for two council members, Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue and State Treasurer Richard Moore, who plan to run against each other in the Democratic primary for governor in 2008.

Democratic voters now being wooed by Perdue and Moore tend to oppose the death penalty, but in the general election, they'll probably have to win over voters who support capital punishment, said Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University.

"Any particular stand that they take will be discussed in the campaign, and so I think they will have to walk carefully around it," Taylor said.

Like many council members, Perdue was surprised to hear that this task was one of the council's responsibilities, said her spokesman, Tim Crowley.

"If the matter comes before the Council of State, the lieutenant governor will give it very serious consideration, but she's not going to speculate on the matter," Crowley said.

Perdue supports capital punishment, Crowley said, but also the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission, a panel that evaluates felons' claims of innocence.

And Moore said in a statement: "As a former federal prosecutor, I believe that there are crimes that are so horrific, so heinous, that they warrant consideration of the death penalty. I also know that the death penalty is a serious issue that deserves careful consideration and ongoing public discussion."

Easley and other council members declined to comment or couldn't be reached.

It is unknown whether Attorney General Roy Cooper would recuse himself from any Council of State vote because his staff represents prison officials in the litigation.


At least one council member didn't see the issue as far removed from his role in state government.

State Auditor Les Merritt's legal counsel are already investigating how much it costs to sentence someone to death and execute him versus the cost of keeping someone in prison for life.

"I serve on the Council of State as State Auditor where my role is not to evaluate the merits of the death penalty but to assess how taxpayers' resources are being used in the criminal justice system," Merritt said in a statement. "Specifically, I am curious as to why there are so many extra costs required to adjudicate capital versus non-capital murder cases."

Staff writer Andrea Weigl can be reached at 829-4848 or

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