Local News

Legislator Calls on Governor to Temporarily Halt Executions

Posted January 18, 2007 2:28 p.m. EST
Updated January 18, 2007 7:45 p.m. EST

Death Row, Death Penalty, Execution
— A state legislator is calling on Gov. Mike Easley to intervene and temporarily stop all executions after the North Carolina Medical Board on Thursday approved a policy that prohibits doctors from taking part in executions.

Under state law, a doctor must be present when an execution takes place in case something goes wrong, but does not administer the lethal injection.

The new policy states that a doctor can be present for an execution but cannot in any way participate in the process. Doctors who violate the policy could lose their licenses.

State lawmakers will have to decide how future executions would be handled in North Carolina.

"Under these circumstances, it seems very problematic that we in the General Assembly could allow executions to go forward when the doctor cannot play the role that is called for in the law," said Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, who is on the General Assembly's Capital Punishment Committee.

North Carolina's next execution is scheduled for Jan. 26, two days after the General Assembly reconvenes, which means the decision of how to handle the execution and two others in February will likely fall in Easley's hands.

"I think Gov. Easley ought to join Gov. (Jeb) Bush and eight other states in suspending the executions until such time as we in the General Assembly can figure out what to do," Luebke said.

After a botched lethal injection in Florida last month, Bush temporarily halted executions in Florida. The eight others followed shortly thereafter.

A representative for Easley said Thursday that the governor had not seen an official copy of the policy and therefore, could not comment on it.

Because of state law, the board won't discipline a doctor "for merely being 'present' during an execution," according to the policy approved unanimously on a voice vote and without debate.

"If the physician is doing something that actually furthers the progression of death, that is a violation of our policy," said Dr. George Saunders, chairman of the board's policy committee. "If the physician is trying to decrease suffering and make that person's life the best that they can for however long it is going to be, that is an appropriate action."

For example, treating an anxiety attack or nausea before an execution wouldn't violate the policy, Saunders said.

The policy conflicts with the nation's largest physician group, The American Medical Association, which considers even attending or observing an execution as a physician a breach of ethics.

"The AMA's policy is clear and unambiguous -- requiring physicians to participate in executions violates their oath to protect lives and erodes public confidence in the medical profession," the organization said in a statement.

The issue has been before the North Carolina Medical Board since last summer, when several doctors asked for guidance following a court request from defense lawyers that an anesthesiologist attend their client's execution. Only the specialist could adequately tell if an inmate was unconscious before being put to death, the lawyers argued.

As a result of the case, the Department of Correction bought a brain wave monitor to use along with a heart monitor to determine whether a prisoner was conscious. Both machines are watched from a small viewing room separated from the execution chamber by a window.

Executioners, described only as volunteers from the prison staff, stand behind a curtain in the chamber to press plungers that deliver the fatal drug through IV lines to the inmate, who is strapped to a gurney.

Under the medical board's policy, a doctor observing the brain wave monitor would violate the state's ethics standards, said board president Dr. Art McCulloch.

"It would not take a doctor to look at a number," said McCulloch, an anesthesiologist. "I would also suggest the technology is not absolutely failsafe."

McColloch also said if a doctor watching an execution saw, for example, a problem with the intravenous line that delivers the fatal drugs, "we certainly would not expect the physician to step in and correct anything."

Inmate Marcus Robinson, 33, is scheduled to be executed Jan. 26 for the 1991 murder of a Fayetteville teenager. Robinson's lawyers have asked a court and the governor to stop the execution because of questions about the humaneness of the state's execution method.

James Edward Thomas is scheduled to be executed Feb. 2 and James Adoph Campbell is scheduled for Feb. 9.