Friday, 26 January 2007

The case for a timeout

Opinion - Editorials
Friday, January 26, 2007

The case for a timeout

In a letter delivered to Gov. Mike Easley on Tuesday, 30 Democratic legislators asked for an immediate moratorium on executions, "until we can be assured that North Carolina's method of execution clearly meets the U.S. constitutional requirement that the punishment is not cruel and unusual."

On Thursday, a ruling by a Wake County Superior Court judge pre-empted, and should predict, the governor's response. Senior Resident Judge Donald W. Stephens halted executions scheduled for today and Feb. 2 to allow Easley and the Council of State time to review and approve plans to limit doctors' role in executions. Stephens' decision, a temporary moratorium in itself, adds to a growing list of reasons why the governor should support a ban on executing the state's death row inmates until further review.

Thursday's ruling not only opens the door to repealing a state law requiring a physician to attend each execution, but it also underscores the dilemma that prompted a new push for a moratorium from legislators including Guilford County Democratic Sen. Katie Dorsett and Reps. Alma Adams, Pricey Harrison, Maggie Jeffus and Earl Jones.

A botched execution in Florida last month offered more evidence that lethal injection, North Carolina's method of execution, has the potential to cause extreme pain. Jeb Bush, then the governor of Florida, imposed a moratorium there following the protracted death of the prisoner.

"It is troubling that North Carolina uses the identical drug combination as Florida," state legislators said in their letter to Easley. The letter also notes that eight other states recently put executions on hold while they review their lethal injection protocol.

In addition, the N.C. Medical Board's new policy prohibiting doctors from participating in executions puts prisoners at greater risk of cruel and unusual punishment, says a press release from the office of Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange, who is among those in favor of a moratorium. That's a sound argument, given that the only reason for physicians to attend executions is in case something goes wrong.

Judge Stephens' order halting the planned executions of Marcus Robinson and James Edward Thomas comes in the wake of that state Medical Board policy, adopted last week. He said he believes prison officials have significantly changed the state's execution protocol in response, but "it's not up to the warden and the Secretary of Correction to make that decision. ... In order to carry out these executions in these circumstances, the governor and Council of State should review that protocol and approve it."

The Attorney General's office could opt to appeal Stephens' order. Or prison officials could sue the state Medical Board. That would force a ruling on the state law requiring doctors to attend executions, which should be repealed.

For Gov. Easley, enacting a moratorium on executions would not only be wise. It may be inevitable.

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