Local News

Tennessee Death Penalty Ruling Could Impact N.C.

Posted September 20, 2007 5:09 p.m. EDT
Updated September 20, 2007 10:06 p.m. EDT

— A federal court ruling in a Tennessee death penalty case could add to the dispute over North Carolina's execution protocol.

U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger ruled Wednesday that Tennessee's lethal injection procedures are cruel and unusual punishment, delaying an execution planned for next week.

The new protocol, released in April, "presents a substantial risk of unnecessary pain" and violates death-row inmate Edward Jerome Harbison's constitutional protections under the Eighth Amendment, Trauger said. The protocol doesn't ensure that inmates are properly anesthetized before the lethal injection is administered, which could "result in a terrifying, excruciating death," she said.

Harbison was scheduled to be executed Sept. 26 for beating an elderly woman to death during a burglary in 1983.

Tennessee uses the same cocktail of drugs in executions as North Carolina: sodium pentathol is used to render the inmate unconscious. Pavulon then paralyzes the body, and potassium chloride kills the inmate by stopping the heart.

North Carolina Senior Administrative Law Judge Fred Morrison Jr. last month ordered state officials to review the execution protocol, saying lawyers for inmates weren't allowed to provide input and ask questions about whether the procedures adequately protected inmates against cruel and unusual punishment.

"I noticed it's the same thing we're dealing with in North Carolina," Morrison said of the Tennessee ruling. "I didn't think it verified or ensured that the person is unconscious before they poison him or put him to death."

North Carolina's death penalty has been on hold since January, when the state Medical Board adopted a policy that threatened disciplinary action against any physician who participated in an execution.

A judge ruled that the policy conflicted with state law requiring the presence of a physician at executions, and he said the Council of State would have to resolve the matter. The Council of State, a group of nine elected officials, including Gov. Mike Easley, then revised the execution protocol and increased the role of physicians in executions.

The Council of State is expected to take another look at the protocol next month. Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry, who sits on the council, said she wants the dispute resolved soon so executions can resume.

"If we're going to have the death penalty, (these rulings require) that we do it the right way. If not, I'm not sure the courts are going to let anybody be executed," Morrison said.