Local News

Judge OKs death penalty protocol

Posted May 14, 2009 2:57 p.m. EDT
Updated May 14, 2009 11:19 p.m. EDT

— A Superior Court judge on Thursday dismissed inmate complaints over how North Carolina carries out the death penalty, opening the door further to resuming executions in the state.

Judge Donald Stephens' ruling is the second blow in two weeks for death penalty opponents, following a decision by the state Supreme Court that physicians cannot be punished for taking part in executions.

Death row inmates Jerry Connor, James A. Campbell, James Edward Thomas, Marcus Robinson and Archie Lee Billings sued the Council of State two years ago, contending the panel shouldn't have approved a protocol for handling lethal injections.

The Council of State includes the governor and other statewide elected officials.

The inmates also maintained that they should have been able to present evidence before any protocol was developed.

An administrative law judge ruled last year that the method for executing inmates doesn't ensure they won't feel pain, and he ordered the council to revise the protocol. The council refused to do so.

In his , Stephens said the council had the authority to draft an execution protocol and that the inmates had no right to contest it.

It was unclear Thursday whether the inmates would appeal the decision. A stay of executions remains in place until the issue is settled.

The Senate passed a bill Thursday that, in addition to ensuring racial bias wouldn't be a factor in death sentences, would free the Council of State from signing off on the execution protocol in the future. That bill still must be approved by the House.

The debate over the execution protocol and physician participation in executions has created a de facto moratorium in carrying out the death penalty in North Carolina.

The last execution in the state 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.

Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake County, believes it’s time for the state to resume the death penalty.

Rep. Carolyn Justice, R-New Hanover, doesn’t see the issue as clear-cut.

“You want to err on the side of caution, but you take away the stick and will there be more crimes?” Justice said.

Scott Bass, an anti-death penalty advocate, is concerned Stephens’ ruling gives the state license to resume executions.

“I find it ironic that the very time reforms are being considered that people are trying to accelerate the rate of executions in the state,” Bass said.