Local News

Judge: Inmates Can Be Heard on Death Penalty

Posted April 30, 2007 7:43 a.m. EDT
Updated April 30, 2007 6:15 p.m. EDT

— A state judge ruled Monday that death-row inmates might have the right to argue the merits of lethal injection with state officials.

Lawyers for five death-row inmates filed suit recently, arguing that the Council of State broke the law when it approved a new execution protocol in February. According to lawyers, the council should have gotten public input, including hearing from condemned inmates, before changing policy.

The new protocol calls for physicians to monitor the condemned inmate's vital signs and to halt an execution if it appears the inmate is in pain.

The Council of State's move came after a Wake County judge halted several planned executions, saying a policy change enacted by the North Carolina Medical Board conflicted with state law requiring the presence of a physician at all executions.

The medical board adopted the new policy in January, saying physicians who participate in executions violate their professional code of ethics. The board threatened to revoke the medical license of any physician involved with an execution.

State law has required physicians to be present at executions to protect a condemned inmate's constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment.

Lawyers for the state argued that the inmates' lawsuit has no merit and that any wrangling over the death penalty should be heard in superior court.

"This is just a sideshow," Special Deputy Attorney General Don Teeter said. "It needs to go to superior court so we can get to the merits of whether or not lethal injection is an appropriate thing to do."

But Administrative Law Judge Fred Morrison ruled that the inmates might have a point to their argument, and he set a May 21 hearing for both sides to debate the point.

"(The Council of State is) as enlightened a group as I might hope to find," said Hardey Lewis, an attorney representing the inmates. "I'm hopeful, if they'd let us talk to them, we might be able to make some headway."

Lawyers for the inmates also are pursuing other legal avenues to block the death penalty, including tackling the disputed role of a doctor at executions and whether inmates might suffer during lethal injection.