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Judge: Medical Board Can't Punish Death Penalty Docs

Posted September 21, 2007

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— The North Carolina Medical Board cannot punish physicians for participating in executions, a judge ruled Friday.

Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens said executions don't fall under the purview of the medical board because they aren't medical procedures. He also said the General Assembly is responsible for establishing the rules regarding physician activities, and medical board policies can't trump state law.

The medical board was reviewing the decision Friday and hadn't decided whether to appeal it, attorney Thom Mansfield said. The board has 30 days to file an appeal.

The board adopted a policy in January stating that participation in executions violates a physician's code of ethics. Any physician who takes part in an execution put his or her medical license at risk, according to the policy.

The policy conflicted with state law, which requires that a physician be present at every execution to ensure that the condemned inmate's constitutional protections against cruel and unusual death are protected.

Because of the conflict, Stephens put six planned executions on hold.

The Council of State, a nine-member panel that includes Gov. Mike Easley and other statewide elected officials, revised North Carolina's execution protocol in February, enlarging the role physicians play in executions. Rather than merely being present, physicians under the revised protocol would have to monitor a condemned inmate's vital signs and alert officials if it appeared the inmate was suffering.

The state Department of Correction sued the medical board in March, demanding that the policy not be enforced. The DOC said officials couldn't find a physician in the state that would assist in executions because of the policy.

In a six-page ruling issued Friday, Stephens said the medical board doesn't have the authority under state law to prevent physicians from carrying out specific tasks set up by the General Assembly, including participating in executions.

"Although the current effort by the medical board to prohibit physician participation in executions may well be viewed as humane and noble, such a decision rests entirely with representatives elected by the citizens of this state," Stephens wrote. "As of this date, the legislature has taken no such action."

Defense attorney Hardy Lewis, who represents death-row inmate Jerry Conner, said the ruling doesn't mean executions are back on in North Carolina. Other legal issues regarding the state's use of the death penalty remain unresolved, he said.

"It's disappointing to us, but not surprising to us," Lewis said of the ruling. "The ruling comes down, and you hear the drum beat out in the public. But we have a deliberate process that takes time. Hopefully, folks will give the process space to work."

In a separate lawsuit over the death penalty, Senior Administrative Law Judge Fred Morrison Jr. said earlier this summer that the medical board had overstepped its authority in threatening to punish physicians for taking part in executions.

That suit was brought by several death-row inmates who challenged the execution protocol. Morrison ordered that the Council of State review the protocol again and accept input from inmate attorneys before adopting revised procedures.

The council is expected to discuss the protocol next month.


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  • alwayslovingu30 Sep 22, 2007

    Isay hang em high even for breaking an entering.All my guns were stolen today by A thug.The johnston county sheriff's dept says it to dusty or tarnished to fingerprint.the law cares about nothing but murder so if your doing some use kevorkian he is already in jail an he is good at his job they cant take his license.Ilost A 22 rifle/ak47/remington 1100-12 guage an A antique savave 22 rifle that was my girlfriends grandads rifle.
    Alot of sorry people in this world Ilive in the country an they still got me.The sherrifs dept isnt much help

  • shep8851 Sep 22, 2007

    Well, it took awhile--but somebody FINALLY woke up and realized that the Medical Board does not have the power to ignore established state law. They are an appointed board, not elected. State law prevails.

  • FragmentFour Sep 22, 2007

    When push comes to shove, will all these court hearings and committee meetings amount to a hill of beans? I did some looking - maybe not enough, but some - at the contractual connection of doctors to the prison system, and it seems very thin. Regardless of whether a judge says the Medical Board can or can not punish MDs for taking part in an execution, the doctor himself has the ability to decline the service. The state may mandate that a doctor must be present in order for the execution to proceed, but there is nothing I can find that says any doctor has to agree to do it. Prison systems employ doctors - and that is certainly something an MD can rectify if it seems appropriate to him or her. So far, I have not found even one MD who is willing to participate in executions - although there certainly has to be at least one who might IF it does not mark him or her as having a poor code of ethics. So... what is all the fuss about?

  • blondton13 Sep 22, 2007

    Good decision.
    I don't think any doctor "enjoys" having to be present at an execution, but they are there to ensure that the death is swift and as painless as reasonably possible.
    Not that I personally think a guilty person sentenced to death still deserves certain rights, but feelings should not affect rationality here. Unfortunately, the death penalty is a very emotional issue.
    And as we have seen, some of the "guilty" are later determined to be "innocent."

    I do not oppose the death penalty, but I do fear that our justice system is flawed.

  • NZ Sep 22, 2007


    Heaven's no my brother. Killing a child or stranger murder for robbery should be an instant ticket to for the offender to Dig a Hole and Jump Right In!!!

  • believer58 Sep 22, 2007

    ....A REAL DEAL HOLLYFIELD 3 Strikes and your Out For the Count for truly violent criminal behavior.

    So those who murdered that 11 year old little girl yesterday should get a crack at 2 more before they face justice?

    2 Freebies?

    So they stop at 2 because they know your consequences of a number 3?

    Sorry family of victims 1 and 2.....no justice for you???

  • Jokers Wild II Sep 22, 2007

    LOL @ NZ - I agree 100 percent! bring back public humiliation and Canings you would see a huge difference!

    Also I had a typo in the last post, I was suppose to say BY not BUY! guess its to early :-(

  • Jokers Wild II Sep 22, 2007

    Locked - I Agree the facts speak for themselves.. I also agree it is disturbing that black males, young black men in particular can not break this cycle of violence. I say young black men because if you step foot into any prison or jail, you will see a majority is young black men! This should speak volumes about their home life, living in poverty, and having no education. We really do need to break this cycle for everyone's benefit but where do you start? I mean there is so much work, like Better role models for our young black men in the community versus "Micheal Vick", "Snoop Dog", etc.. Better Educations by forcing them to learn versus breeze through for the sports and only knowing how to play football when they graduate.. A Better home life buy educating their parents on how to raise their children, and not using their children as a burden on the state and a cash cow.. This list could go on and on..

  • NZ Sep 22, 2007

    As for those who say prison is a better punishment...

    Take it from an agnostic, don't waste the energy and perhaps the lifers with no parole, and terminal Death Row convicts, could be recycled into something useful. We can always hope their next incarnation will take away their painful existence for the hell on earth THEY spawned for honest Americans. Citizens DUPED by a bureaucratic quagmire of a legal system we have today.

    We can only hope our lawmakers hear the call. Do it today, its no wonder the Iranians are likely laughing at us. They surely don't waste their time with Child Molesters over their (by NO MEANS saying I want a Religious nightmare as a government; and much less one that stagnates the process).

    Offer Mortgage/debt relief to prison workers retrain them in the medical fields or other humanitarian work, pro bono. Institute Canings for most serious offenses, A REAL DEAL HOLLYFIELD 3 Strikes and your Out For the Count for truly violent criminal behavior.

  • NZ Sep 22, 2007

    Additionally, minority incarceration rates would plummet if we simply released all non violent drug offenders and began servicing drug abuse as a medical issue and not a criminal matter.