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N.C. Executions on Hold, Await New Rules

Posted January 25, 2007

— A Wake County judge on Thursday halted two executions planned for the next week until state officials can devise a plan to carry out the death penalty without physicians.

Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens issued an injunction after Gov. Mike Easley and the Council of State couldn't meet a 10 a.m. deadline he set Wednesday to unveil a new protocol for handling executions that didn't include physicians.

"The moral question and the legal question is whether or not this state wants to execute a person without the supervision of physician present," Stephens said. "If there is a significant change in the execution protocol, it's not the warden or the secretary of corrections that makes that decision, it would be the elected leaders of the state."

Attorneys for Marcus Robinson and James Edward Thomas asked Stephens to block the executions on the grounds that the state can't assure they would die without pain.

Robinson was to be executed at 2 a.m. Friday for the 1991 murder of a Fayetteville teenager, and Thomas had been scheduled to be executed Feb. 2. James Adoph Campbell is scheduled to be put to death on Feb. 9, but that is also in doubt under Stephens' ruling.

North Carolina uses lethal injection for executions, and state law requires that a physician be present when inmates receive the deadly cocktail.

But the North Carolina Medical Board last week approved a policy that prohibits physicians from participating in executions, saying doing so would violate the profession's ethics. Anyone violating the rule could lose his or her medical license.

Thomas Pitman, an attorneys with the Attorney General's Office, argued that the law requires only the mere presence of a physician at an execution to sign the death certificate, which they said wouldn't violate the medical board policy.

Other medical professionals, such as nurses and paramedics, are present to handle the execution, and the licensing boards for those groups have taken no public position on the execution issue, Pitman said.

"This is not some great grandiose individual right suddenly created that the Council of State has to bless these two plaintiffs' executions," he said, reflecting his disagreement with Stephens' ruling.

The attorneys for Robinson and Thomas said the law never intended for physicians to be "potted plants." Instead, physicians are supposed to monitor the vital signs of the condemned person to ensure they aren't subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, which would violate the state and U.S. constitutions, the attorneys said.

"If the state is going to choose to execute people, they have to do it in accord with the law," said Robert Zaytoun, an attorney for Thomas. "I think Judge Stephens said very clearly that the Department of Correction and the warden can't make up the rules as they go along."

The Attorney General's Office plans to consult with Easley and Department of Correction officials before deciding whether to appeal the ruling or to take other steps, said Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General's Office.

"I think it's a victory for courage," Zaytoun said. "It starts first with the medical board having the courage to issue their ethical ruling clearly knowing the requirements that existed at the time regarding physicians at these executions, and then I think it's an exercise in courage and profile in courage by the court."

Thirty state lawmakers have sent a letter to Easley calling for him to suspend executions. They referred to states like Florida, where Gov. Jeb Bush issued a moratorium after a botched lethal injection.

"We're hopeful that the Council of State and the governor will look at the issue. We're hopeful that they'll follow the lead of Florida, California and eight other states which have put a moratorium on executions," said Geoffrey Hosford, an attorney for Robinson.

Last week, a spokeswoman for Easley said the governor didn't have the authority to get involved after the medical board changed its policy. He could only follow the letter of the law as it applies to clemency issues in individual cases, the spokeswoman said.

Easley's office referred all questions to the Attorney General's Office on Thursday.

Attempts to push a death-penalty moratorium through the General Assembly have failed in past years. But some are ready to address it again.

"I think it moves forward the public debate, and we're very pleased this judge took this action," said Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange,  one of the organizers of the legislative effort calling for a moratorium.

Kinnaird called Stephens' ruling a procedural issue and said it doesn't address fundamental questions about the death penalty.

"Whether we have executed innocent people and we need a moratorium to make it more just because people of color, poor people and people in rural areas are more likely to get the death penalty is an entirely different question," she said.

She has filed bills calling for a commission to study the use of lethal injection in state executions and to prohibit mentally ill people from being put to death.

This story is closed for comments.

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  • I SWEAR FO GOD Jan 26, 2007

    executions should be public and swift. there is not enough thought given to the families of the victims. we waste entirely too much money housing deathrow inmates waiting for 10-20 years waiting on appeals to be exhausted. if it were swift and public there would be deterence. there are individuals who will commit these heinous crimes regardless of the penalty, but in the end, they themselves would not be able to repeat the crime. i believe the opponents of the death penalty are a minority trying to impose their view on the majority. the criminal justice system as a whole needs an overhaul to repair the gross inefficiencies that plague it.all it takes is having to see and smell the victims after their deaths to understand what the death penalty is for. i guess it is easy to forget the victim, when you don't have to see them dead, and it is easy to forget the victim when the suspect has had a haircut and a fresh change of clothes. we need to follow in the footsteps of texas.

  • exxe75 Jan 26, 2007

    I was a friend of Erik. As I see it, Erik didn't get a chance to prolong his execution. He was forced to lay down and beg for his life, which was denied as he was shot in the face. I am a paramedic, and I know there are other medical professionals besides doctors that can pronounce people dead. Paramedics and nurses do it all the time. There is no need to have a doctor there anyway. What would a doctor do, try to resuscitate the condemned inmate? The point of an execution is to terminate the life of this murderer. Inmate Robinson has enjoyed the pleasure of life for far too long. It's time to pay the price, a price that should have been paid 16 years ago. The authorities in this matter must find the courage to let these executions proceed. These inmates have had their due process, and juries of their peers have made their decisions. The postponement of these executions is a slap in the face to these people. Get pass the trivial banter and let justice be served, and served quickly.

  • DonT Jan 26, 2007

    Easley picks the Medical Board, now they did his work for him in halting executions, all so he can save face and act as if he had nothing to do with it. Typical NC politics and liberal democrats at work, remember the lottery? What about the will of the States majority in support of the death penalty?

  • pauley98 Jan 26, 2007

    As far as I am concerned the 3 executions should go on. The reason for this is the fact that the doctors group said that doctors can not participate in executions and the stat law says that a doctor has to be present. The words participate and present have different meanings no matter what the lawyers for the 3 men scheduled for execution think. In my thinking Judge Stephens made a mistake in this case because of the wording of the state law and the wording of the doctors group.

  • eaglehead05 Jan 26, 2007


  • katieb60 Jan 26, 2007

    I think it's ridiculous that criminals have more rights than their victims!! Those rightfully convicted did not care about the people they commited violent crimes against, yet in this country we continue to allow them rights and piveledges which they should have been stripped of upon conviction. Who represents the victims??? As a taxpayer, I cannot possibly agree with paying millions of taxpayers dollars every year to keep violent criminals alive, pay for appeals processes and then delay execution to seek a more "humane" way to execute! Were any of them humane to their victims? Likely not! Would they rather suffer the same fate as their victims?

  • MSgt J Jan 26, 2007

    Senseless crimes such as the ones committed by these individuals will never stop if the punishment doesn't fit the crime. I don't like the idea of an inmate sitting on death row for years before an execution is carried out. As soon as the appeals process has been exhausted the execution should be conducted immediately. Why waste the time trying to save the life of these people. Who cares if they suffer pain during the execution. They didn't care if they caused any pain to their victims. I think that the method of execution should be extremely painful, then maybe these thugs will think twice about commiting these crimes.

  • amypsychrn Jan 26, 2007

    Actually, nurses can pronounce a person dead. I don't mind helping out. Just give me a call.

  • callieg Jan 26, 2007

    We need to get rid of a lot of red tape and eliminate unnecessary junk and uphold the law w/ stiffer punishments. Then carry the punishments out w/ or w/o the Dr.'s and Judges.

  • blindjustice07 Jan 26, 2007

    We do not have justice in this country. This is why we have so many criminals. Those with criminal intentions do not have to worry about being punished. "At the most, I may have to serve a little time, so its worth the risk." They know that they have a million laws and greedy lawyers to protect them. The victims have no one. There is no money in it and no fame in it. (Which also equals money) so lawyers are not interested. As long as our justice system cares more about the criminals and the money than the victims, it will continue this way.