Local News

Doctors' Letters Triggered Execution Dispute

Posted March 7, 2007

— The death penalty in North Carolina is officially at an impasse -- an impasse that looks like it will be settled in a Wake County courtroom.

So far, five executions have been put on hold while the state tries to work out an apparent conflict between a law that says a doctor must be present and a North Carolina Medical Board policy that says it is unethical for physicians to participate in executions.

The nearly year-long journey to this juncture on the state's death penalty began when a handful of doctors wrote letters to the N.C. Medical Board last spring regarding their concerns about a physician's role in capital punishment.

Raleigh internist Dr. Robert Bilbro has practiced in Raleigh since 1972. He co-authored a letter with his friend, retired doctor Elizabeth Kanof, on April 11, 2006. They asked the Medical Board to address the apparent contradiction between a doctor's oath to save lives and his or her role at executions.

“The medical community needed to come to focus on this issue,” Bilbro said.

And that’s exactly what they did. Because of the letters, the Medical Board considered the issue this year and took the position that a doctor should not participate in executions.

It was an outcome the letter writers hoped for, but one they say they never expected.

“It's very gratifying in this complex world of ours (that) a few people still can make a difference,” Kanof said.

As a result, there is a de-facto moratorium on executions in North Carolina until the legal issues can be resolved.

“My hope is that will lead to a more permanent moratorium in which the whole issue will be very carefully studied,” Kanof said.

The North Carolina Department of Correction filed a lawsuit against the Medical Board Tuesday arguing that capital punishment is legal and is not a medical procedure. Therefore, doctors should not be disciplined for participating, the department argued.

The board responded Thursday by saying it is aware of the lawsuit and will file a response, but in the meantime is standing by its position.

Doctors question whether there is any way to resolve the issue.

“I do think it's foolhardy to think the administrators of the corrections system, the courts or the vote of the Legislature can reverse the ethical standards,” Bilbro said.


This story is closed for comments.

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  • perry Mar 8, 2007

    Why does a doctor need to be there? It is an execution. They are bringing them back to life.

  • superman Mar 8, 2007

    I guess some doctors has a twisted view of life. It is ok to kill innnocent babies but they gotta hide when he it comes to killing convicted criminals-- what a bunch of fools the doctors make themselves to be. The state should do away with the medical board and let the dept of correction license the doctors.

  • XRAYMAMA Mar 8, 2007


  • nursevb8 Mar 8, 2007

    It is not a medical practice/treatment so no Dr. should need to be present. This would be like Kevorkian (sp) The criminal should then be transferred to a hospital and pronounced dead. But then it would be the job of the EMT to help revive the criminal. It's a tough decision to agree on. No one should spend 15-20 years on death row. Death is death, not 1/2 your life later.

  • gman976 Mar 8, 2007

    It seems like twisted logic to me. If its "not a medical procedure" why is a doctor required? I flipped through the statutes quickly and the only thing I could find is G.S 15-188 which covers the manner of executions (no physician mentioned). On the other hand, per G.S. 90-323, NC requires a licensed physician determine that death has occurred. Not that I think its a good idea but I think some states still allow funeral directors to do this...

  • givitanam Mar 8, 2007

    They should start a program within the correctional facilities that train employees how to take a pulse correctly and check for vital signs. I know those doctors must've been getting paid for this...take that money and start a class. It's not brain surgery people. Let's not give the doctors a choice, let's kick 'em out. Start a program, how much could it be? I'd be willing to let go of a few tax dollars for this if it meant the death penalty in NC could continue being carried out.

  • BLeighVnJC Mar 8, 2007

    For the person up thread that asked about Paramedics replacing the doctors... Same issue may be in place because all Emergency Medical Personal practice under the medical License of the county Medical director. Some good points have been made. What about the victims of the crimes and what about the ethics of Abortion. there are doctors that do not believe it is ethically right to perform abortions and they will not do so. If a doctor has the same feelings about executions then you can be a objector just as a soldier during past drafts can prove that the act of war is against their proven moral beliefs.

  • katgoesloco Mar 8, 2007

    Every single comment on here up to now has been in favor of the death penalty and against these doctors who stood up for their professional ethics.

    I applaud them. I'm happy to be the first to post here in opposition to the primitive, blood-thirsty mob.

  • Raleighwood Mar 8, 2007

    Look - this is the justice system. A justice system that, if you ask me, has already been too slow enacting the death penalty. Years on deathrow? People that commit these heinouse crimes should be put to death, and because it's DEATH, there is no need for a doctor to be present. We want it to be final, and I have ZERO compassion if they suffer some "discomfort" during the process. If there is NO negative reaction to the original negative action, what do you think will stop others from doing the same thing? If there is nothing to fear in the punishment, what will stop them from committing the crime?

  • Mmaker52 Mar 8, 2007

    Let it be one of these "Drs" family members that are raped or viciously murdered and see how they feel about the death penalty then. Our country and state are in such sad shape. Seems lots of Bible prophecy is coming true!