Local Politics

Lawmakers Ready to Jump Into Death-Penalty Debate

Posted January 25, 2007 5:55 p.m. EST
Updated January 25, 2007 6:47 p.m. EST

— A decision by a Wake County judge Thursday to halt executions until state officials could figure out a way to carry out the death penalty without physicians caught the attention of state lawmakers.

Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens said a new policy adopted by the North Carolina Medical Board prohibiting physicians from participating in executions makes it impossible for the state to carry out the death penalty. State law requires that a physician be present at executions.

Although no legislation is pending to address the issue brought up in the case, lawmakers have considered a death-penalty moratorium in previous sessions. The proposal has never come close to passing.

"This is going to open up a lot of questions," Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange, said of the latest battle over the death penalty.

Kinnaird and 29 other state lawmakers recently sent a letter to Gov. Mike Easley calling for him to suspend executions. They referred to states like Florida, where Gov. Jeb Bush issued a moratorium after a botched lethal injection.

"What I feel (the ruling) has done, it has stopped the execution of actual people so that we can debate the fuller issue," she said. "In this case (that involves) how we administer the death penalty. Is it cruel and unusual punishment?"

Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger opposes a moratorium, and he said he hopes the Attorney General's Office appeals what he considers a technicality.

If the state law on capital punishment needs more clarification, the Rockingham County Republican said he and his colleagues can change it. He also said he is skeptical whether doctors are really needed in the death-penalty equation.

"It probably would make sense to take that out altogether, and I think that's something we need to look at," Berger said. "If people want to talk about cruel and unusual (punishment), they need to talk about what happened to the victims of these people that have been convicted."

Kinnaird said she has filed bills calling for a commission to study the use of lethal injection in state executions and to prohibit mentally ill people from being put to death.