Local News

Lawmakers Divided on Calls for Death Penalty Suspension

Posted February 5, 2007 4:28 p.m. EST
Updated February 6, 2007 6:17 a.m. EST

— More than a dozen state legislators Monday joined the call to Gov. Mike Easley for an indefinite suspension of all executions.

In a 44 state senators and representatives asked that all executions be immediately halted "until we can be assured that North Carolina's method of execution clearly meets the U.S. constitutional requirement that the punishment is not cruel and unusual."

Thirty legislators made a similar request to Easley on Jan. 23.

On Jan. 25 and 26, Judge Donald W. Stephens stayed the executions of the three Death Row inmates whose executions were scheduled between Jan. 26 and Feb. 9. Stephens ruled that a new policy prohibiting physicians from participating in executions would prevent the state from carrying out the death penalty because the state’s protocol requires a physician to be present.

"The Black Caucus considers the lethal injection controversy to be of great importance," said Rep. Alma Adams, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus. “We ask the governor to implement a death penalty suspension now."

Among the 14 lawmakers joining the call for a temporary halt to executions are Rep. Angela Bryant, D-Nash and Halifax, Rep. Marvin Lucas, D-Cumberland, Rep. Mary McAllister, D-Cumberland, and Sen. Janet Cowell, D-Wake.

The House Select Commission on Capital Punishment struggled to find consensus on state executions as they reviewed the lethal injection procedure Monday and debated a proposed death penalty moratorium.

There were many both within and outside the group who opposed a suspension of any sort.

“A moratorium is simply a prelude to abolishing the death penalty,” said Mel Chilton with the North Carolina Victims Assistance Network.

Former lawmaker Rick Eddins said an uncle who was the victim of a homicide wasn’t spared by his killer from the pain of death.

“My uncle didn't have a chance to get a little Coca Cola or Pepsi and a cinnamon bun before he was murdered,” Eddins said.

However, Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, said many of his colleagues were running from ways to find more fairness in the justice system.

“You're just wrong, and you're just using an emotional argument that does not fit with the facts,” Luebke said.

However, Rep. Ronnie Sutton, D-Robeson, disagreed with Luebke’s assessment.

“As far as me running from my responsibilities, I won't run. I'll stand fast. I'll never vote for a moratorium,” Sutton said.

Ultimately, the commission never voted on the proposed moratorium.

“There may be areas we can improve the system, but we don't need to make a drastic change at this point,” said House Majority Leader Hugh Holliman.

Supporters of the temporary halt to executions were left with only feelings of frustration.

“The discussion got bogged down, and folks feeling like we're heading toward abolition of the death penalty and that's not what we're about,” said Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford County. “We're about the fair and proper administration of the death penalty.”

The Council of State will take up the matter of execution protocol at its Tuesday morning meeting. The goal is for Easley and the council to look at the protocol as set forth by the Department of Correction Friday and approve it.

The proposed protocol generally follows current law, but clarifies two points: that doctors should monitor the inmate's bodily functions, and that he or she can stop the execution if the inmate shows signs of pain or suffering. This role goes against what the medical board set forth.

All but three of the members of the Council of State declined to comment to WRAL on Monday. A spokesperson for the Superintendent of Public Instruction, June Atkinson, said she had not yet formed an opinion, but would weigh all of the issues carefully.

Secretary of State Elaine Marshall sent WRAL a statement, saying: "It is obvious that there have been weaknesses in the administration of justice in some death penalty cases. So I do believe that the General Assembly should put a moratorium on it."

"Clearly, this issue falls outside the realm of matters where the Council of State has expertise," Marshall said. "I would support the General Assembly taking a look at cleaning up the statute."

State Auditor Les Merritt also weighed in on the debate, saying: "I have several questions as to whether portions of the protocol conflict with the Medical Board's statement."

Monday evening. Lt. Gov. Beverly Purdue's office issued a statement saying she is 'closely studying the death penalty protocol vote." She also said that while she supports capital punishment, she believes "there should be a moratorium on executions" until the courts clarify the issue in North Carolina.

A representative for the Medical Board said Monday they has not seen the latest protocol and could not comment on it. However, a spokesman for Insurance Commissioner James Long said their office has received hundreds of calls and e-mails from members of the public who have strong opinions on this issue.

On Feb. 1, Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen suspended all executions in Tennessee for 90 days while issues involving that state's lethal injection method are studied. In December, then Florida Gov. Jeb Bush issued a moratorium after a botched lethal injection.
In addition, eight additional states -- Arkansas, California, Delaware, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, South Dakota, and Maryland -- have halted executions while the lethal injection process is under review.