RALEIGH, N.C. — In 1983, inmates in North Carolina were able to choose lethal injection for the first time instead of the gas chamber. In 1998, lethal injection became the only means of execution in the state. In the past year, that method has been questioned. It has stopped executions for nine months, but that trend may be about to end.
Sammy Perkins was sentenced to death for killing and raping a 7-year-old girl in Pitt County. If he is executed at Central Prison on Friday morning, he will be the first person to die at the hands of the state since January.
"The death penalty is never appropriate where there is a cloud hanging over a proceeding," said Edwin West, Perkins' attorney.
Perkins' attorneys said the jury was biased and Perkins is mentally ill. They also contest his execution because they say the drugs used in lethal injection cause a person to suffer.
"There are some who would say that if someone has been sentenced to death, the way they are executed does not matter, but the problem is that's not what the law says," West said.
West said he watched a client die last year.
"There were problems with Mr. Hartman's execution. Mr. Hartman suffered. His body has severe convulsions," he said.
A lethal injection challenge before the U.S. Supreme Court is slowing executions this year. Last year, the issue of mental competency forced the state to put them on hold for eight months. Over at the state Legislature, there is a push to convince lawmakers to vote for a two-year moratorium on executions, but so far, that effort has failed.
"I think all of this is born of a bottom-line opposition to the death penalty. That is not consistent with the overwhelming will of the citizens of North Carolina who continue to substantially affirm that they will continue the death penalty," said Rep. Sam Ellis, R-Wake.
In response to the lawsuits, the state Department of Correction announced last week it was changing the way it administers lethal injections. The agency has rearranged the order in which the drugs are administered. A full dose of anesthetic is now given up front instead of in two steps.
While the debate wages on over the death penalty, 186 people are sitting on death row. A total of 182 men are at Central Prison and four women are housed at a separate prison in Wake County.