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Supreme Court tries to untangle death penalty debate

Posted November 18, 2008

— The role of a physician in North Carolina executions took center stage Tuesday as the state Supreme Court heard arguments on whether the North Carolina Medical Board can punish doctors who participate in an execution.

The Medical Board adopted a policy in January 2007 that taking part in an execution would violate a physician's code of ethics and would subject a doctor to having his or her medical license revoked.

State law requires a physician's presence at all executions, and the Medical Board's decree effectively put executions on hold in North Carolina because the Department of Correction couldn't find a physician willing to put his or her license on the line and go to a scheduled execution.

The state also faces a lawsuit from death-row inmates over the execution protocol approved by the Council of State, which also has produced a de facto moratorium on capital punishment in the state.

The last execution carried out in North Carolina occurred in August 2006. At least five scheduled executions have been put on hold since then.

A Wake County judge ruled last year that the Medical Board's policy overstepped its authority and that state law takes precedence, and the board appealed that ruling.

Justices and lawyers debated Tuesday on the proper definition of "present" as it's used in the law and tried to determine what physicians have been doing at executions for the past century.

"What does the word 'present' mean? That's really what this case turns on," said Todd Brosius, an attorney for the Medical Board. "This is a word we understand as elementary school children. When the teacher calls out your name at roll and you say, 'Present,' it means that you're there. It doesn't have any implication as to what you're doing."

Associate Justice Edward Thomas Brady challenged that reasoning, saying some dictionaries define "present" as being "actively involved."

"A physician has education, training and experience. If he's just standing there or sitting there like a potted plant, what's the purpose of that?" Brady asked. "If a condemned inmate is suffering and becomes conscious and is convulsing ... the doctor should just stand there?"

Brosius said physicians have been present at executions since 1909, when North Carolina moved all executions to Raleigh, because they could attest to each county that their death sentences were carried out.

Assistant Attorney General Joe Finarelli said the dispute arose because the Medical Board patterned its policy after a position statement of the American Medical Association against capital punishment. Also, the state had to revise its execution protocol in 2006 because a federal judge said it didn't go far enough to uphold an inmate's Eighth Amendment protections against suffering cruel and unusual punishment.

"It's difficult to understand how, other than the 'do no harm' ethic of the Hippocratic oath, that the Medical Board can state that (participating in executions) violates the ethics of the profession when they didn't enunciate the ethics of the profession until 2007," Finarelli said. "There were executions that were carried out and the physician was involved in the process well before 2007."

He argued that a physician monitors an execution to ensure the Eighth Amendment is upheld.

In the end, Associate Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson suggested the court throw the matter back into the laps of state lawmakers to define more clearly the role of physicians in executions. Two bills introduced last year to end the death penalty stalemate never made it out of committee as lawmakers waited for the courts to rule on the issue.

"This court and other courts are always taken to task for legislating. Why shouldn't we just send this right on over (to the General Assembly) where it belongs?" Timmons-Goodson said.

A ruling is expected in a couple of months.


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  • wayneuber Nov 19, 2008

    When children acknowledge their presence in the classroom it's also accepted that they could be asked to demonstrate their skills or at least be attentive to what is going on. A required "presence" implies that doctors are there for a reason.

    More simply put, the North Carolina Medical Board is obstructing justice by threatening to sanction doctors who attend executions. Regardless of their intentions, the NC Medical Board has become a de-facto advocate for proven premeditated murderers...

  • Tax Man Nov 18, 2008

    "What is the difference between the death roll person and the actual murderer that got life?" Dr Dataclerk

    The person on death row is going to die - likely as soon as they get this fixed. The lifer will never get out, but gets to have family come visit and walk in the sunshine - associate with all the other prisoners, work out on the weights, play sports, eat three square meals, take a shower every day - basically live a restricted life, but still a life. The death row inmate is restricted to death row, gets limited or no visitation, stays mainly in his/her cell, eats alone, gets out maybe once a day for shower/exercise in the locked down part of the prison. Big difference. And based on their crimes it should be - and they should be executed soon so that their brothers on the outside know better than to kill!

  • nccopper Nov 18, 2008

    Another mentally sick person that certainly needs help. Pray for these people. Lord help them. I hope your family knows and will immediately seek help for you.
    Are you kidding me Dr Dataclerk ? Look at what the lord said if you need further, EYE FOR AN EYE. Let them commence these stalled executions on Jan 10, 2009, Same day as we swear in the new GOV ! Save some money and have a 2 for one expense!

  • Ken D. Nov 18, 2008

    Personally, I oppose the death penalty. Nonetheless, the North Carolina Medical Board should not be allowed to unilaterally make this decision for all North Carolina citizens.

    We should fight the death penalty by demonstrating that it is wrong, not by some semantic trick.

  • Dr. Dataclerk Nov 18, 2008

    Thsi is why we get no where on these issues. Too many bleeding hearts. Here's the deal- if he is not dead- hit him again- who needs a doctor?

    Another mentally sick person that certainly needs help. Pray for these people. Lord help them. I hope your family knows and will immediately seek help for you.

  • Dr. Dataclerk Nov 18, 2008

    I for one am tired of keeping up these lowlife murders and rapists. If you don't want them put to death take one home to live with your family. You seem to think all they need is a little rehab and they will be fine.

    That little pocket change they take from you is hardly missed. What would you say if you turn around one day, and it was YOUR CHILD? Would you want the state to kill your child or just life in prison? This is just your opinion. You will not be asked what choice if that was to happen. Also use other family members before saying anything. Think Think.

  • Ken D. Nov 18, 2008

    "Why do we try to hide capital punishment executions from the public, to try to look more civilized.:

    I think we hide them precisely because, deep down, we know that when we kill people we are not civilized. Some of us are OK with that, and some aren't.

    Perhaps we should require that all executions be carried out in public, and that the governor personally do the killing. I wonder how many governors would support capital punishment if they had to pull the trigger? I don't think I would want such a person to be governor.

  • Dr. Dataclerk Nov 18, 2008

    What is the difference between the death roll person and the actual murderer that got life?

  • Dr. Dataclerk Nov 18, 2008

    We need public executions so the criminals will know what their fate will be. At present a convicted felon will die of old age before being executed.

    You are so repulsive. Why on earth would you want to see something like that and death at that. You are very sick in the head my friend.

  • Dr. Dataclerk Nov 18, 2008

    Why should the state involved the doctors? Allow the state people to stand and watch someone die. Let it be on their conscious. Stand up Doctors for your freedom of rights. The states says killed the people on death roll, so what would you need a doctor for any way. I would not want the job. I don't believe in taking a life for another. That don't solve nothing. Life in prison would be better. You could give the death to the wrong person. You cannot bring the dead back. This has happen.