State News

Supreme Court Ruling May Not Lead to Executions in N.C.

Posted April 16, 2008 4:18 p.m. EDT
Updated April 16, 2008 10:17 p.m. EDT

— The U.S. Supreme Court's decision to approve a widely used method of lethal injection may not be enough to end to North Carolina's unofficial moratorium on executions.

Issued Wednesday, the ruling from the nation's high court signed off on the procedures used in Kentucky, where three drugs are used to sedate, paralyze and kill inmates. Roughly three dozen states, including North Carolina, use similar methods.

However, neither of the lingering legal challenges to North Carolina's death penalty, which have effectively kept execution on hold for more than 18 months, are addressed directly by Wednesday's ruling.

A spokeswoman for State Attorney General Roy Cooper said attorneys are looking at the Supreme Court ruling and trying to determine if it affects North Carolina.

"We've got attorneys who are studying the ruling and are trying to determine how it may impact North Carolina," said Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General's Office.

The state last put an inmate to death in August 2006. Since then, five executions have been put on hold as part of a complex set of legal challenges to the state's death penalty procedures. A sixth execution was halted because of questions about the inmate's mental competence.

In January 2007, Wake County Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens stayed several executions after state officials altered the death penalty protocol to satisfy the orders of a federal judge, who said a physician must monitor the process ensure the condemned inmate did not suffer.

Stephens cited a century-old law that requires the Council of State – a body of the state's top elected officials – to approve any change in the process of executing an inmate.

The Council of State went on to approve the change, but attorneys for death row inmates argued the panel didn't adequately consider public input before making the decision. An administrative law judge agreed, but the Council of State rebuffed the judge's conclusion. Attorneys for the inmates are appealing that decision.

Meanwhile, the state medical board adopted a policy in January 2007 that threatened to punish physicians who take part in executions, saying it would violate the profession's code of ethics. Cooper's office sued, and Stephens ruled in September the board had overstepped its authority. That decision is being appealed, too.

Thomas Maher, a former criminal defense attorney who is now executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, in Durham, said he doesn't expect North Carolina will resume executions until those legal issues are resolved.

"I would think it would still be some period of time before executions begin again in North Carolina," Maher said.