April 6, 2007
Execution impasse unlikely to end soon
Andrea Weigl, News & Observer
RALEIGH - For the foreseeable future, North Carolina's executioners will not
be scheduled for late-night shifts. Death penalty protesters will not be
planning 2 a.m. vigils outside Central Prison in Raleigh. At least five
condemned killers' lives will be in limbo, and the death chamber will remain
Democrats, who control the legislature, are content to let the death penalty
impasse persist while lethal injection litigation winds through the courts.
Republicans are pushing for a legislative fix. It will likely be years
before a definitive ruling comes down from an appeals court, making it
unknown when North Carolina's death penalty could resume.
"We just can't know until these threads of litigation and legislative action
play out," said Durham lawyer Mark Kleinschmidt, who represents an inmate
involved in one of the many lawsuits.
Gov. Mike Easley and Democratic lawmakers say they have no plans to end the
"The legislature isn't going to be able to move in any direction, really,
until it gets some final ruling from the federal and the state courts,"
Easley said this week.
That sentiment was echoed by leaders in the state House and Senate. Bill
Holmes, a spokesman for House Speaker Joe Hackney, a Chapel Hill Democrat,
said, "His feeling was we could try to give a legislative fix but we don't
know what that fix should be until the courts are done with it." And Schorr
Johnson, spokesman for Senate leader Marc Basnight, a Manteo Democrat, said
in a statement, "This issue is complicated and Senator Basnight thinks we
must proceed carefully and with guidance from the courts."
Theodis Beck, secretary of the Department of Correction, said in a
statement, "The Department of Correction does not support or oppose any
particular course of action to resolve the current death penalty gridlock.
Like others, we're watching and waiting to see how things will play out in
the courts and the legislature.
North Carolina is one of 11 states where the death penalty has been halted
because of questions about lethal injection. Inmates have raised
constitutional challenges to the three-drug cocktail used for lethal
injection, saying they may experience cruel and unusual punishment if they
are not fully sedated before being injected with paralyzing and
heart-stopping drugs. Currently, there are 166 defendants on North
Carolina's death row.
North Carolina law requires a doctor to be present at executions. Last year,
a federal judge allowed two executions to proceed on the condition that a
doctor monitor an inmate's consciousness on a brain-wave machine. In
January, the N.C. Medical Board passed a new ethics policy prohibiting
doctors from doing anything to assist an execution, which would violate
doctors' oath to save lives. Prison officials changed their procedures to
accommodate the new policy. A state judge ruled they needed approval from
Easley and a panel of top state elected leaders before they could proceed.
The governor and the Council of State gave approval but litigation abounds
in several courts.
Prison officials are suing the medical board, asking a judge to rule that a
doctor cannot be disciplined for participating in an execution. Four death
row inmates have lawsuits questioning the constitutionality of the execution
procedures. Two inmates also filed a lawsuit challenging the Council of
State's approval of those procedures without public comment.
The morass doesn't stop there. Dr. Obi Umesi, who was present at the last
two executions, said last week that he did not monitor the inmate's
consciousness, as a federal judge thought would be done. During a deposition
in November, Warden Marvin Polk conceded that the doctor's duty was only to
be present. And now those inmates' lawyers are considering bringing prison
officials back into court to explain to a federal judge why they appear to
have violated his order.
Source : News & Observer