Friday, 9 February 2007

Legislature takes first steps into fight over executions

Legislature takes first steps into fight over executions

RALEIGH (AP) - A state lawmaker filed a bill Thursday that would protect doctors who take part in executions, joining a debate that has effectively shut down capital punishment in North Carolina.

The bill filed by state Sen. Phil Berger came a day after a longtime death penalty opponent in the chamber asked for a moratorium while the lethal injection process is studied.

“I don't think that there's anything new of a substantive nature that would call for a moratorium,” said Berger, R-Rockingham, who filed the doctor protection bill.

“The death penalty is studied probably more than any criminal punishment that we've got. It's studied every time a jury reviews the evidence and decides between life in prison or a death sentence. It's studied every time the North Carolina Supreme Court reviews a conviction.”

The Council of State on Tuesday approved a new “execution protocol” that was nominally meant to resolve the role of doctors in executions. But Gov. Mike Easley and other members said they knew their vote would settle nothing, because the matter would ultimately have to go back before a judge who stayed three executions awaiting the council's action.

Attorney General Roy Cooper said Tuesday he won't bring the matter back before the judge until he discusses the protocol with the state Medical Board, which has threatened to punish any doctor who participates in an execution.

The council also protested that the doctor's role is only one of many questions about capital punishment that should be settled by the General Assembly, and formally asked lawmakers to begin work on the matter.

A day later, state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange, filed a bill calling for a study commission on lethal injection and a moratorium on executions until June 1, 2009.

Its discussion should cover not just a doctor's potential role but that of any medical professional, Kinnaird said after filing the bill Wednesday.

“I think it's important for us to discuss this in the context of professional codes of ethics,” she said. “And that means not only doctors, but also nurses and pharmacists - should they be producing the chemicals that kill people? I think it means EMT people. I think it means anybody.”

The North Carolina Nurses Association weighed in Wednesday as well, with a statement noting that its parent organization, the American Nurses Association, has long opposed nurse participation in executions.

The state association “opposes any public or private entity mandating that nurses participate in executions as a requirement for employment,” the statement from president Dennis Sherrod said.

On Thursday, Berger - a death penalty supporter - filed a bill that would protect any medical professional from punishment by a state board for participating in a lawful execution.

“It seemed to me that, if in fact the procedure that was adopted (by the council) does run afoul of the ethics board, that this would be a way to address that issue,” he said. “Even if the new protocol is accepted (by the Medical Board), there's always a possibility that in the future some other Superior Court judge will have an issue with it.”

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