Local News

Questions Abound as Death Penalty Proponents, Opponents Vie Before Judge

Posted May 21, 2007 8:44 p.m. EDT
Updated May 21, 2007 8:45 p.m. EDT

— A hearing Monday began to tackle the issues surrounding execution by lethal injection in North Carolina, including the question of whether the practice should be considered medicine only because it uses drugs.

An administrative law judge must decide whether the Council of State needs to reconsider the way North Carolina executes death-row inmates. In addition to the question of whether it is medicine, the hearing is attempting to determine if inmates suffer in the process and what is the real role of a doctor in executions.

Executions are on hold because of the questions raised by several death-row inmates and their attorneys.

Death penalty opponents argue that the state has no plan that can prevent cruel and unusual punishment. They called UNC Medical School anesthesiology professor Dr. Philip Boysen

“You might end up paralyzing somebody that actually isn't fully anesthetized, and they're aware,” Boysen said.

Boysen also made a statement that may work to the state’s benefit, however.

In his opinion, Boysen told Administrative Law Judge Fred Morrison, lethal injection is not a medical procedure.

Attorneys for the state argue that the State Medical Board should not be able to bar doctors from executions if it's not a medical procedure.

Dr. Obi Umesi is the physician who was called upon to be present during the last few state executions. Umesi said he did nothing other than stand in a room next to the chamber where inmates died from lethal injections.

Questioned by an attorney, Umesi told the hearing that it would be "practically impossible" for him to determine whether an inmate was showing signs of undo pain and suffering.

Attorneys for death-row inmates say that situation violates a federal judge's order and shows that the state’s lethal injection protocol makes no sense. The state’s process requires a doctor to monitor vital signs.

The medical board has ruled, however, that doctors may not participate, and Umesi said that meant he would not be involved.

“If I were to monitor a patient who was being executed, I would immediately withdraw myself,” Umesi said.

Attorneys for the inmates are arguing that they were unfairly denied a chance to address the elected officials who comprise the Council of State before the protocol passed. The secretary for the Council of State told the  that few people ever get to make their case to the council.

”I just have no recollection of Council of State ever treating its business meeting as a public hearing,” secretary David McCoy testified.

Morrison is expected to rule within a few weeks.