Stay of N.C. Executions to Stay Awhile
Raleigh — Almost a year has passed since North Carolina carried out its last execution, and observers say no resolution to legal disputes over the death penalty is in sight.
Six executions scheduled for earlier this year have been put on hold indefinitely because of uncertainty over a physician's role in the process and the protocol the state follows to carry out a lethal-injection death sentence.
"It will be a while before we get it resolved," said Senior Administrative Law Judge Fred Morrison Jr.
Meanwhile, 162 men and four women sit on death row at Central Prison in Raleigh.
Morrison issued a ruling last week calling for state officials to review the execution protocol, including hearing from death-row inmates, to ensure prisoners don't die in pain, which would violate their constitutional rights.
"(I looked at) whether they could feel undue suffering before the drugs are put in their system to be sure they're unconscious, and I wasn't assured of that," he said.
Gov. Mike Easley responded to Morrison's ruling by saying the execution issue doesn't belong in front of the Council of State, although state law requires the group, which includes Easley, Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue and other statewide elected officials, to set the protocol to be followed in executions.
"It sounds like Council of State is going to ignore it, so actually I think their actions push us further from a resolution on the issue one way or another," said attorney Hardy Lewis, who represents death-row inmates.
"It would be nice if there were the political will (to settle the issue)," Lewis said.
Morrison said the Council of State legally must review the protocol – even if the members don't change it – because of his ruling.
State Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry, another Council of State member, said Tuesday that she wants the protocol issue resolved so the state can resume executions.
Morrison's 15-page ruling also criticized the North Carolina Medical Board for its policy threatening to discipline any doctors that participate in executions. The policy says taking part in an execution would violate a physician's code of ethics.
State law requires that a physician be present at every execution, and the medical board policy prompted a judge to stay the executions of several inmates because the law and the policy conflicted with each other.
"I don't think its unethical for a doctor to be present and to assure that an inmate is unconscious," Morrison said.
North Carolina is one of 11 states where executions are on hold. Concerns in other states range from general worries about the death penalty and possible inmate innocence to issues with lethal injection.