Senior Resident Judge Donald W. Stephens listens, Thursday Jan. 25, 2007, to the state's attorneys as they make their case to allow executions to continue. Stephens halted two executions due to the change in the roll doctors will play in the process of an execution. (AP Photo/Karen Tam)
The ruling by Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens delays the executions of Marcus Reymond Robinson, 33, who had been scheduled to die at 2 a.m. Friday, and James Edward Thomas, 51, set to die next week.
But the ruling further complicates the debate over whether the state can carry out executions without the assistance of an attending physician. State law requires a doctor's presence at executions, but the North Carolina Medical Board decided last week that any participation by a physician violated medical ethics.
The state decided a nurse and medical technician - instead of a doctor - would monitor condemned inmates' vital signs as they die by lethal injection. A doctor would now only observe the execution and later sign a death certificate.
But Stephens said such a change in the state's process for imposing a death sentence requires, under a law passed in 1909, the approval of North Carolina's Council of State - the governor and the nine other statewide office holders.
"This is a critical aspect of the protocol in North Carolina, that a physician participate," said Thomas' attorney, Robert Zaytoun. "A physician can't simply be a fly on the wall."
The 1909 law was originally written to ensure that corrections officials didn't spent more than $1,000 on a new electric chair, state attorney Tom Pitman said.
The next meeting of the Council of State is set for Feb. 6. Renee Hoffman, a spokeswoman for Gov. Mike Easley, declined to say whether Easley would call an unscheduled meeting to approve the new death penalty procedure.