Local News

Court: Physicians can take part in executions

Posted May 1, 2009

— In a decision that could begin breaking up the legal logjam over the state's death penalty, a divided North Carolina Supreme Court ruled Friday that physicians cannot be punished for taking part in executions.

The North Carolina 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.

Council Of State May Vote On New Death Penalty Protocol Medical Board can't punish docs for executions

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 last execution carried out in North Carolina occurred in August 2006. At least five scheduled executions have been put on hold since then. There are 163 inmates on death row at Central Prison.

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

In a 4-3 decision that broke along gender lines, the court upheld the judge's ruling.

"We hold that (state law), by its plain language, envisions physician participation in executions in some professional capacity," Justice Edward Thomas Brady wrote for the majority. "(The Medical Board's) position statement exceeds its authority ... because the statement directly contravenes the specific requirement of physician presence."

The case turned on how the judges defined a physician's presence at an execution, as spelled out in state law, and Justice Robin Hudson wrote in the dissenting opinion that the court's majority defined it too broadly.

"The position statement is a valid exercise of (the Medical Board's) statutory authority. Any change in that authority – which is the practical effect of the majority opinion – is a matter for the General Assembly which granted it, not for the courts," Hudson wrote.

Medical Board officials said they disagreed with the decision and were disappointed by it.

“The Medical Board believes that the role of the physician is to end suffering and to preserve life. This board has taken the position that active physician participation in executions runs counter to the core values of medicine. That position has not changed," board President Dr. George Saunders said.

Raleigh physician Dr. Charles Van Der Horst said he has no plans to take part in an execution, regardless of the court's ruling.

"The Supreme Court, the Department of Correction, the attorney general, the governor, the state legislature, by abdicating their responsibility, are forcing physicians to commit murder," Van Der Horst said. "If the legal establishment wants to execute people, let them do it themselves and leave us out of it."

Correction Secretary Alvin Keller declined to comment on the ruling, and a spokeswoman for Gov. Beverly Perdue said the governor would continue to monitor the situation surrounding the state's death penalty.

"(The) ruling by the state Supreme Court offers important guidance to the state Medical Board and the Department of Correction on how to proceed with executions," spokeswoman Chrissy Pearson said. "Gov. Perdue continues to support the death penalty."

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.


This story is closed for comments.

Oldest First
View all
  • Made In USA May 1, 2009

    I support the death penalty 100%. Without it, there is too little deterrent to help prevent one from committing this terrible crime.

  • DeathRow-IFeelYourPain-NOT May 1, 2009

    PraiseToHim, I really hope I don't know you. Because I respect most people I know. And I would hate to think one of them can't understand the simplest of logic.

  • DeathRow-IFeelYourPain-NOT May 1, 2009

    "A nation that condones execution cannot in any way be said to be moral. Imprisonment removes the threat of murderers. Anything more is just revenge and is unnecessary." --annemarek

    Sorry, I cannot agree with this statement. Imprisonment does NOT remove the threat of murderers. How many times have people escaped from prison, only to terrorize or murder again? If a dangerous murderer is put to death, THEN and only THEN, is the threat of a murderer removed.

  • Just the facts mam May 1, 2009

    Don't do the crime, if you don't want to do the time.

  • d1_standing May 1, 2009

    Morality is basically defined as right and wrong. Although it is convenient for us, we like to apply religious teachings to morality when they fit as use those teaching to be definitive. However, the question of if whether "MURDER" is always wrong has to be answered. If the answer is "YES" then using the death penalty is wrong. This is true even when justified by the State. If "MURDER" is "NOT ALWAYS" wrong, then it opens up the argument for abortions, self-defense, and the death penalty. Because there is nothing definitive about religion, the State has set the parameters. If we as a society agree (which we have) that enforcing the death penalty is best suited for us then so be it. We just have to live with the fact that we tolerate our government allowing the death penalty and abortions equally so.

  • murph May 1, 2009

    "In a 4-3 decision that broke along gender lines, the court upheld the judge's ruling."

    I can only assume which gender voted which way. But the 3 should be kicked out of the court and be made to live amongst the murderers and evil people that commit these crimes. The people that are convicted with no question about their guilt should be executed as soon as their appeal is complete...not 10-15 years later.

  • PraiseToHim May 1, 2009

    "A nation that condones execution cannot in any way be said to be moral. Imprisonment removes the threat of murderers. Anything more is just revenge and is unnecessary."

    Anne, I generally agree with your statement.


  • boolittlek May 1, 2009

    I'm Christian and have always felt conflicted over the death penalty. I know Christians on both sides of the issue, and I think an argument can be made for both points of view. But for the pro-death penalty Christians, even if you think it serves justice, I don't see the need for being downright giddy at the thought of executing someone. A necessary evil? Maybe. But it's still a sad thing and evidence of how we've all fallen short of the glory. Maybe we should have the death penalty, I don't know; but I'm pretty sure we shouldn't have smiles on our faces when contemplating it.

  • annemarek May 1, 2009

    A nation that condones execution cannot in any way be said to be moral. Imprisonment removes the threat of murderers. Anything more is just revenge and is unnecessary.

    Since MORALIRY comes from God and God is not allowed in our nations courts, why bring up the word MORALITY. The STATE is secular and is not subject to God’s rules. The STATE has a different standard of conduct than we as individuals. The State is to keep their individuals safe and away from harm. That also includes keeping the spending of housing death row prisoners low. Execute now please so there will be more room on death row for all the other slugs that come our way. Yes, revenge against evil.

  • PraiseToHim May 1, 2009


    I understand your words--even if they are grammatically incorrect--but your simplistic reasoning fails to pass muster.