@NCCapitol

@NCCapitol

After five years, NC's death penalty still in limbo

Posted August 19, 2011 7:43 p.m. EDT
Updated August 20, 2011 12:16 a.m. EDT

Five years ago yesterday, Samuel Flippen was executed by the state of North Carolina. He was sentenced to death in March of 1995 for the murder of his two-year old stepdaughter, Britnie Nichol Hutton.

The state hasn't executed any one since Flippen. For the past five years, there’s been a de facto moratorium on the death penalty in NC. It’s the longest gap between executions since they were banned between 1962 and 1983. 

Meantime, 158 people are sitting on death row — left in legal limbo because of ongoing disputes over how North Carolina executes prisoners who've been sentenced to die for their crimes. 

Since 1998, the state's only method of executing people has been lethal injection. State law requires a doctor to be present at all executions.

But in early 2007, the NC Medical Board decided it was unethical for doctors to participate in putting people to death and threatened to punish any doctor who did. Prison officials couldn't find any doctors to take part, so they couldn't execute anyone.

The Department of Corrections took the NC Medical Board to court. The case went all the way to the state’s Supreme Court, which ruled in 2009 that the medical board could NOT punish doctors for following state law.

In the meantime, two other legal issues surfaced that are still unresolved.

A group of inmates has sued the state over changes made in 2007 to the state’s execution protocol. The plaintiffs say the way those changes were made didn't follow state law. That case has also been heard by the state Supreme Court, but no ruling has been issued yet.

Another case is before Wake County Judge Donald Stephens. Death row inmates in that lawsuit say lethal injection violates their constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment. That case has gone on for several years, and two similar federal cases are on hold until Stephens makes his ruling. The next hearing in that case is scheduled for December.

Some people expected lawmakers to take action this year to clarify the state's execution law. They chose not to, mostly because they wanted to wait to see the outcome of the pending court cases. There's no clear indication when those cases will be settled.

In the intervening five years, North Carolina juries have sent a dozen felons to death row, despite the hold on executions. And two high-profile murder trials in the headlines today – those of Robert Stewart and Josh Stepp - are also capital cases.

In the same five years, three people have been freed from death row. Jonathan Hoffman was exonerated and released in 2007 due to alleged misconduct by prosecutors on the case. Glen Chapman and Levon “Bo” Jones were cleared in 2008 amid investigations into alleged misconduct by detectives in Chapman’s case and defense attorneys in Jones’s case.