Local News

Judge Says He May Stop N.C. Execution

Posted April 11, 2006 9:53 a.m. EDT

— A federal judge said he will stop an execution scheduled for later this month unless state officials tell him by Wednesday how they will ensure the inmate is unconscious as he is being put to death.

U.S. District Court Judge Malcolm Howard issued the ruling Friday in the case of condemned killer Willie Brown Jr. Brown, 61, was sentenced to death for the 1983 Martin County slaying of Valerie Ann Roberson Dixon. He is scheduled to die April 21.

State prosecutors must confirm by noon Wednesday that appropriate medical personnel will be on hand for Brown's planned execution to ensure that he is unconscious and to immediately put him back to sleep if there is any sign of his awakening.

State Department of Correction spokesman Keith Acree said late Monday that the department's lawyers were reviewing the judge's request.

The case is parallel to a February case in California, where an execution was canceled after doctors refused to participate.

A lawsuit on Brown's behalf challenges the state's method of execution by injection, saying inmates may suffer pain if they are not properly sedated. The state procedure is to inject a drug that puts inmates to sleep, then others that paralyze and kill them.

"Serious questions have been raised by the evidence concerning the effect of the current execution protocol," Howard said in his order. "If the alleged deficiencies do, in fact, result in inadequate anesthesia prior to execution, there is no dispute that Brown will suffer excruciating pain."

During an execution in March, prison officials would not comment when asked if there were medical personnel present when the drugs were injected.

Dr. Richard Pollard, president of the N.C. Society of Anesthesiologists, said only an anesthesiologist or a nurse anesthetist could fulfill the judge's requirements.

Brown's lawyers also have asked Gov. Mike Easley to grant clemency and change the death sentence to life in prison, arguing that their client has a history of untreated mental illness. Prosecutors and defense lawyers are scheduled to make their cases during a hearing Tuesday.

Defense lawyers also contend that Brown's prosecutor offered a plea agreement at one point and appeared uncertain about whether the case should have carried a death sentence. Brown's trial lawyers were inexperienced and failed to introduce his mental state as a reason he should not be sentenced to death.

Brown's jury also received unconstitutional instructions, the same ones that were used by a federal appeals court to invalidate nearly 50 other death sentences, his latest lawyers contend. Brown's first appellate lawyer did not raise the issue, they said.