Friday, 26 January 2007

N.C. should suspend executions and fix the system

Do death penalty right
N.C. should suspend executions and fix the system

North Carolina's system of charging, trying and executing murderers is unworthy of a state that values the fair and orderly administration of justice. Numerous prominent and respected citizens have urged the General Assembly to halt executions, study that system and do what's necessary to make it a model for the nation. The need for a better system was demonstrated again Thursday when a judge in Raleigh postponed any executions after finding one aspect of the process failed to follow state law.

The most recent national controversy involves whether the most commonly used method of execution, lethal injections, violates the U.S. Constitution's ban on "cruel and unusual punishment." A recent execution in Florida offered a grisly extreme example: The executioner botched the procedure and took a half hour and two injections to do the job. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush declared a moratorium on executions while that state reconsiders its system.

A Superior Court judge in Raleigh imposed a temporary ban Thursday after this series of events involving another issue.

N.C. law says a physician must be present at all executions. In the past, doctors have monitored the offender's heart rate and consciousness. But the N.C. Medical Board recently approved a policy prohibiting physicians from participating in executions, saying doctors who do so violate the profession's ethics and could lose their license to practice.

Then an attorney with the N.C. attorney general's office said the doctor needn't take part in the execution but could just sign the death certificate.

That won't do, ruled Wake County Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens. He cited a 1909 law saying any change in the execution procedure had to be approved by the governor and other top officials who make up the Council of State. He blocked two executions scheduled for the next few days until that approval is given.

Polls show most North Carolinians favor the death penalty. But no one wants an innocent person executed, or a system in which some people get the death penalty and others don't even though their crimes are indistinguishable.

A large, bipartisan group of citizens -- some of them opponents and some supporters of the death penalty -- have called for a two-year moratorium on executions and a study to make our system as fair and accurate as humanly possible. The General Assembly should approve legislation to do that.

What would a moratorium do? Offenders already sentenced to death would still face that penalty, and courts could still impose it, but no one would be executed until the two-year study was completed. Among moratorium supporters are two former state chief justices -- Jim Exum, a Democrat, and Rhoda Billings, a Republican.

The issue is urgent. The present system has sentenced at least five people to death who later were determined to be innocent. North Carolina can do better. In the interest of justice, it should.

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