Sunday, 1 April 2007

Fooled him?

Published: Mar 31, 2007 12:30 AM
Modified: Mar 31, 2007 02:41 AM

Fooled him?
A deposition indicates a federal judge's order wasn't followed during two executions last year. The muck grows deeper

Could the confusion, anger, controversy, illogic and mystery of North Carolina's death penalty possibly become any more complicated? Not likely. But it might soon become quite volatile. It seems there are differing accounts of what a prison doctor did or didn't do, and what he was supposed to do or not do, during two executions last year. Specifically, there are assertions, reported by The N&O's Andrea Weigl, that a doctor did not monitor the brain wave activity of two inmates who were executed, Willie Brown and Samuel R. Flippen.

That would seem to contradict the order of U.S. District Judge Malcolm Howard, who allowed the executions to proceed, while requiring a physician to be there and monitor brain wave activity. The reason? Because a debate over lethal injection has one side saying the method of killing, which is used in North Carolina, may constitute unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. They say that's because people may suffer great pain if they are not truly unconscious when paralyzing drugs are administered. Howard, in ruling the way he did, apparently believed that ensuring unconsciousness during the execution would cover that objection.

But in a deposition in November, Central Prison warden Marvin Polk said a physician was "present," but didn't monitor the brain wave machine. Adding further to the confusion, Dr. Obi Umesi said he didn't monitor the consciousness of the inmates, although he was just a few feet away when they died.

To do so might have put Umesi in conflict with the N.C. Medical Board, which forbids doctors from participating in executions, though not from being present. However, in an earlier deposition, released by the state Attorney General's Office, Umesi indicated he did look at monitors of brain waves.

Is this a semantic argument or a more substantial one? Judge Howard presumably will have something to say on the matter, and attorneys for the two men who died are looking into wrongful death lawsuits and into having the prison officials held in contempt.

This is just another story in the ongoing saga of North Carolina's death penalty, and it's an ugly story, indeed. Inmates on death row have been shown to be disadvantaged by prosecutors' zeal. Some politicians, so afraid of the pro-death penalty forces out there, are determined to proceed with executions even though the death penalty is hopelessly flawed. It is not perfect and cannot be made perfect. Yet it can't be corrected if a mistake is made.

Then there's the issue with doctors. Professional ethics don't allow doctors to take lives; they're sworn to save them. But groups from prison officials to legislators wants doctors to ignore those ethical rules. That is preposterous. And a Wake County Superior Court judge, Donald Stephens, has halted five executions since January while those issues are being addressed.

The questions, quandaries, and moral issues surrounded state-sponsored executions are many and complex -- too complex to just continue with the status quo. Governor Easley and lawmakers should back a two-year moratorium, and sort this out without proceeding with any further executions. At the end of that time, they might be overcome with logic and reason, and abolish the death penalty for good.

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