Lobbying intense on medics' role in N.C. death penalty policy
By Andrea WeiglThe News & Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina)Copyright 2007 The News and Observer
Editor's note: Last month, the N.C. Medical Board passed an ethics policy stating that doctors can be present at executions, but they cannot assist in any way. Prision officials said proceduces such as monitoring vital signs would be left up to nurses and paramedics on duty.
The Council of State, a panel of top elected leaders that will plunge into the death-penalty debate today, has been inundated with e-mail messages, letters and phone calls from people who want it to ask the legislature to decide what role doctors should play in executions.
Late Monday, one of those leaders — Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue — called for an execution moratorium in North Carolina until the settling of constitutional questions about how and whether a physician can help in a lethal injection.
But a key group of lawmakers on Monday gave up a chance to weigh in on the issue that has derailed three executions. Instead, the House Select Committee on Capital Punishment, which met to approve bills for the legislative session, proposed only minor changes to the administration of the death penalty.
"It was disappointing," said Dick Taylor, who heads the N.C. Academy of Trial Lawyers. "These are policy issues that will have to be resolved in the legislature. They could have begun to work on that."
North Carolina's death-penalty controversy dates to April when a federal judge asked prison officials to ensure inmates are sedated before being injected with fatal drugs. Prison officials bought a brain-wave monitor, and the federal judge was satisfied that the execution was constitutional because a doctor would monitor the inmate's level of consciousness.
But last month, the N.C. Medical Board passed an ethics policy stating that doctors can be present at executions but cannot assist in any way, such as monitoring vital signs. Prison officials then said a nurse and a paramedic would monitor the medical equipment.
Inmates' attorneys sued in state court, arguing to a Wake County judge that only a doctor can decide whether an inmate has been sedated.
A judge's response
However, the judge hit upon a state law that requires Gov. Mike Easley and the council's approval of the qualified personnel involved in executions — an endorsement that hadn't been secured and led the judge to halt three executions. North Carolina has joined a growing number of states from California to Tennessee where questions about lethal injection have derailed the death penalty.
Perdue, a likely Democratic candidate for governor in 2008, said in a statement that a moratorium should be in place while the courts clarify such constitutional questions.
"Lt. Governor Perdue has long stood and continues to stand as a supporter of capital punishment," read the statement from Perdue's office. "At the same time, she believes and has a demonstrated record in favor of insisting upon fairness in its administration."
Perdue was out of town Monday and unavailable for comment.
The focus will turn this morning to the Council of State, whose members have received thousands of communications about the issue, spokesmen said Monday. Before what is expected to be an overflow crowd, the panel that meets monthly to approve leases and land condemnations will wade into unfamiliar territory for some members, including the state auditor and agriculture commissioner.
Back to court
Any resolution by the council today will send the case back to court, where the same judge will have to decide whether North Carolina's method of ending inmates' lives is constitutional.
Regardless, many think, state lawmakers will have to ultimately step into a dispute over whether they intended a doctor to act as a physician at an execution when they passed a state law requiring one to be there.
On Monday, near the end of the Committee on Capital Punishment's meeting, House Speaker Joe Hackney, an Orange County Democrat, offered a draft bill to delay executions based on questions swirling around lethal injection. Rep. Ronnie Sutton, a Lumberton Democrat, objected.
"Why don't we let it take its course?" he asked.
And with that, a committee meeting that had been amiable got heated. Rep. Paul Luebke, a Durham Democrat, remarked, "I've never see legislators running so fast to get away from an issue."
Sutton responded that he was not running from his responsibility.
That exchange prompted Rep. Rick Glazier, a Fayetteville Democrat, to say he respected both their viewpoints, but "today is not the day" to wade into this issue.
But even Glazier conceded, "I think it will ultimately come back here. I see no way around that."
Not everyone was disappointed with the legislature's inaction.
Peg Dorer, executive director of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, said the Council of State should have its say first. And Mark Kleinschmidt, who runs the Fair Trial Initiative, which trains lawyers to handle death-penalty cases, said he was pleased to hear lawmakers discuss the question of when it is appropriate for them to step into the debate.
That's not to say Kleinschmidt was pleased with the committee's progress Monday.
"I was disappointed that they weren't able to tackle more substantive issues," he said.
For now, tinkering
The committee recommended minor proposals but left more significant changes to the capital punishment system for future debate.
Lawmakers agreed to introduce bills to require law officers to turn over all their files to prosecutors and to require that officials of the State Bar, which disciplines lawyers, be notified if a defendant receives a new trial because of lawyer misconduct.
The committee also approved a proposal to allow defendants to appeal if they think they received a death sentence based on racial discrimination — either in the prosecutor's decision to seek the death penalty or the jury's decision to impose a death sentence.
Committee members said a handful of other issues warrant further study.