Thursday, 8 February 2007

The doctor factor

The doctor factor

Even if it wasn't what the Council of State intended, a pause in North Carolina's use of the death penalty makes sense
Despite many well-recognized problems with North Carolina's use of the death penalty, a suspension of its use has yet to win approval in both houses of the General Assembly. And a group of top executive branch officials on Tuesday voted to try to get capital punishment back on track, following a judge's ruling that had left matters up in the air. For all that, as Governor Easley acknowledged, the state now has what amounts to a death penalty moratorium -- a very welcome turn of events.

It now will fall to the courts and quite possibly the legislature to again address key aspects of the state's death penalty laws. In the process, they will be asked to reconcile the irreconcilable notion that doctors have a proper and ethical role to play in putting inmates to death.

The Council of State, with Easley presiding, voted 7-3 to approve a procedure under which doctors would monitor inmates' "essential body functions" while lethal injections were administered. That puts this group of statewide elected officials at odds with the N.C. Medical Board, which regulates the state's physicians.

The board ruled last month -- understandably so -- that doctors would cross the ethical line if they participated in executions. But a state law requires doctors to be present. That conflict is at the heart of a dispute that now returns to a Wake County Superior Court judge. It was Judge Donald Stephens who stayed three pending executions and directed the Council of State to consider the state's execution methods in light of a doctor's role.

Despite the council's vote, the Medical Board should not let itself be pressured to reverse or even weaken its ethically sound decision against doctors' participation in executions.

The point of monitoring an inmate's vital signs, including brain waves, is to stop an execution if the condemned person is not fully sedated and thus at risk of feeling pain that would reach the unconstitutional level of cruel and unusual. But for a doctor to tap a nurse or technician on the shoulder if the meter spiked would appear to violate the board's dictum.

Actually, any departure from the way a lethal injection is supposed to proceed could put a doctor in the position of having to intervene. So a physician would be dragged into the death-dealing work, which the Medical Board properly has said is diametrically opposed to what doctors (and nurses, for that matter) are admitted into the the healing profession to do. In real-world terms, North Carolina can't have it both ways, requiring a doctor's presence and prohibiting him or her from taking any action.

With many questions about the death penalty's fairness in mind, the state Senate four years ago approved a moratorium, but the legislation did not pass the House. Now, with the prospect of further court review, lawsuits and appeals, there is no telling when executions will be permitted to resume. Lawmakers and officials in charge of the state's justice system should take advantage of the pause to step up their scrutiny of a system that has seen wrongful convictions and other examples of unfairness in capital cases.

Those who commit horrific crimes should be punished harshly. Life without parole provides the means to do that, while also allowing for mistakes to be corrected. That's the discussion the legislature now needs to have.

No comments: