After five years, NC's death penalty still in limbo

Posted August 19, 2011
Updated August 20, 2011

Five years ago yesterday, Samuel Flippen was executed by the state of North Carolina. He was sentenced to death in March of 1995 for the murder of his two-year old stepdaughter, Britnie Nichol Hutton.

The state hasn't executed any one since Flippen. For the past five years, there’s been a de facto moratorium on the death penalty in NC. It’s the longest gap between executions since they were banned between 1962 and 1983. 

Meantime, 158 people are sitting on death row — left in legal limbo because of ongoing disputes over how North Carolina executes prisoners who've been sentenced to die for their crimes.  Death Row, Death Penalty, Execution NC remains in death penalty limbo

Since 1998, the state's only method of executing people has been lethal injection. State law requires a doctor to be present at all executions.

But in early 2007, the NC Medical Board decided it was unethical for doctors to participate in putting people to death and threatened to punish any doctor who did. Prison officials couldn't find any doctors to take part, so they couldn't execute anyone.

The Department of Corrections took the NC Medical Board to court. The case went all the way to the state’s Supreme Court, which ruled in 2009 that the medical board could NOT punish doctors for following state law.

In the meantime, two other legal issues surfaced that are still unresolved.

A group of inmates has sued the state over changes made in 2007 to the state’s execution protocol. The plaintiffs say the way those changes were made didn't follow state law. That case has also been heard by the state Supreme Court, but no ruling has been issued yet.

Another case is before Wake County Judge Donald Stephens. Death row inmates in that lawsuit say lethal injection violates their constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment. That case has gone on for several years, and two similar federal cases are on hold until Stephens makes his ruling. The next hearing in that case is scheduled for December.

Some people expected lawmakers to take action this year to clarify the state's execution law. They chose not to, mostly because they wanted to wait to see the outcome of the pending court cases. There's no clear indication when those cases will be settled.

In the intervening five years, North Carolina juries have sent a dozen felons to death row, despite the hold on executions. And two high-profile murder trials in the headlines today – those of Robert Stewart and Josh Stepp - are also capital cases.

In the same five years, three people have been freed from death row. Jonathan Hoffman was exonerated and released in 2007 due to alleged misconduct by prosecutors on the case. Glen Chapman and Levon “Bo” Jones were cleared in 2008 amid investigations into alleged misconduct by detectives in Chapman’s case and defense attorneys in Jones’s case.


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  • matthewwood007 Aug 25, 2011

    @ eyesblue " We can solve some of our prison overcrowding by carrying out the death penalties already in place"

    That statement is just plain dumb. Even if you went all " Gov. george Bush, or Rick Perry" That would account for approxiamtely 500. Hardly a remedy for overcrowding.

    @oneal2bme How about sounding like the 8th Amendment of the Constitution?

    @Chevybellair Did you copy and paste that answer from the Tea Party manual on "being disagreeable for any occassion"

  • oneal2bme Aug 24, 2011

    I m so confused when these people violently killed murdered abused these human beings where were their rights. Now north carolina wants to give the guilty rights how to die. Wow that sounds a little backwards to me.

  • PoBoy Aug 24, 2011

    I am wholeheartedly against the use of lethal injection as a method of utilizing the death penalty. If one person in every county in the state of NC could go to Lowe's, Home Depot, etc. and purchase the rope, lumber and hardware needed to build a scaffold infront of their prospective courthouses and let executions be carried out as they used to be, the state could save a TON of money.

  • tarheelgrad1998 Aug 22, 2011

    Meanwhile, death row inmates laugh it up, living on the taxpayer dime.

  • dollibug Aug 22, 2011

    It we had people in the NC Judicial System who were capable of doing a professional, legal and lawful job of convicting people beyond a reasonable doubt...I would say...bring it on....but this is NOT always the case....I think that the entire Judicial SYSTEM needs to be reviewed....as there are people who do NOT belong there....they are there to just get a case under their belt and will do anything and everything to do so....as we have seen recently in Wake County Court....MISTAKES are made...BIG TIME....and then what? Kill people who are INNOCENT? OK...3 years may be the time that someone should be FOUND INNOCENT....NOPE..it does not happen...just look at the recent case of the West Memphis 3....what 18 years...wasted...and one of them was on death ROW...an INNOCENT made could have been KILLED for no reason....I wish there was a better way...and it could be...if everyone in the legal system was upfront and honest with how they prosecute....but it ain't going to happen...

  • eyesblue Aug 22, 2011

    We need to get the death penalty back into active use. I'm sorry that I don't buy the doctor's ethical issue. I believe that those convicted ought to have an amount of time for appeals...but this isn't an endless period and it isn't over 3yrs. If there was anything to find to reverse the conviction, it should be found in 3 yrs of dedicated effort or it isn't there. We can solve some of our prison overcrowding by carrying out the death penalties already in place. We have some folks who are clearly NOT redeemable, who have NO remorse for their crimes. How long can we throw good money after bad by feeding and housing these people forever.

  • COPs eye Aug 20, 2011

    Just another example of this states inability to govern.....ABSOLUTELY CORRECT....It is time to replace everyone at the top who is just receiving a check without producing results for the voters,,,,salary cuts to a moderate salary and benefit cuts to what the average person has at a job.

  • driverkid3 Aug 20, 2011

    "Death row inmates in that lawsuit say lethal injection violates their constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment."

    They didn't think og THAT when they committed the crimes that got them put on Death Row, did they?

  • chevybelair57sd Aug 20, 2011

    Just another example of this states inability to govern and how perverted the justice system has become. We should demand excellent government from all our elected officials and expedite removal of those proved incapable.