Executions Could Remain on Hold Indefinitely
Posted January 7, 2008 6:16 p.m. EST
Updated January 7, 2008 11:31 p.m. EST
Raleigh, N.C. — As the U.S. Supreme Court grapples with the practice of lethal injection to carry out executions, the death chamber at Central Prison in Raleigh remains dormant – a situation observers expect to continue for some time.
The Supreme Court heard arguments Monday in a Kentucky case in which condemned inmates challenged the three-drug cocktail used to execute people in that state. The inmates allege that the drugs risk causing excruciating pain, which would violate the Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
North Carolina uses the same drug cocktail to execute condemned inmates, so state officials and defense lawyers are keeping an eye on the high court's actions.
Several other legal challenges to executions have put the North Carolina death penalty on hold for more than a year, however. The last execution was carried out in August 2006, and 166 people now sit on death row. Observers said they expect that to continue.
"It will always be a complicated issue, and it's hard to imagine there not being litigation swirling around it continuously in the future," said Mark Kleinschmidt, a lawyer with Fair Trial Initiative who represents death-row inmate James Thomas.
Thomas was convicted in the 1986 killing of Teresa West in Wake County. She was strangled with a pair of pantyhose and sexually assaulted with a telephone receiver in what attorneys said was a heroin deal gone awry.
In addition to the lethal-injection drugs themselves, the role of doctors in executions and the state's protocol for carrying out the death penalty remain tied up in North Carolina courts.
"We need to think about this and wonder, is this an appropriate way to deal with crime?" Kleinschmidt said.
Senior Administrative Law Judge Fred Morrison Jr., who last summer ordered state officials to consider input from death-row inmates in revising the execution protocol, said he is eager to read the Supreme Court's ruling in the Kentucky case.
"It's the manner in which the executions are performed (where) the Supreme Court can give guidance," Morrison said. "Right now, (the death penalty is) on hold."
West's uncle, former Craven County Sheriff C.W. "Pete" Bland, said he is frustrated by the legal limbo created by the various challenges to the death penalty.
"I feel that we've got one of the fairest ways of sentencing a man to death," Bland said, adding that West's family is prepared for however things play out in the courts.
"Whichever way it goes, that's going to be what the good Lord intended, and that's what we're going to live with," he said.