State News

N.C. Medical Board appeals execution decision

Posted July 30, 2008 7:34 p.m. EDT
Updated July 31, 2008 9:49 a.m. EDT

Death Row, Death Penalty, Execution

— The North Carolina Medical Board on Wednesday defended its right to punish physicians who participate in executions, arguing in an appeal that the Legislature never intended for doctors to take part.

The board asked the state Supreme Court to reverse a Superior Court judge's decision from September 2007 that determined the board overstepped its authority by threatening to punish physicians for participating in executions.

The medical board said in the appeal it filed Wednesday that it "would be abandoning its own mission were it not to enforce and protect the ethics of the medical profession, especially one so central to the medical profession as the preservation of life."

The board's policy effectively triggered a moratorium on the death penalty in North Carolina, which has not executed an inmate since August 2006.

Department of Correction spokesman Keith Acree said his office couldn't immediately comment because the agency had not seen the filing. The department has 30 days to file a response, after which the Supreme Court justices would decide whether the legal issues in question require them to hear the case.

The board wrote in its appeal that the main question before the court "is whether the legislature ever intended to jeopardize the trust between the people of North Carolina and their physicians for the sake of unnecessary participation by physicians in judicial executions."

The filing argued that the General Assembly has consistently shown through legislative acts that it "never intended for physicians to actively participate in judicial executions."

The medical board licenses and disciplines doctors in North Carolina. It adopted the policy in January 2007, saying the participation of physicians in executions violates the ethics of a profession tasked with saving life.

But Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens said last year that state law does not grant the medical board the right to prohibit doctors from assisting in executions. He also ruled that executions are not medical procedures.

The filing said that it's irrelevant whether an execution is a medical procedure because the Legislature has given the board the authority to discipline doctors for violations of medical ethics, regardless of whether they involve the practice of medicine. Such violations include sexual relationships with patients and fraudulent billing.

State law requires that a doctor be present during a lethal injection, and a federal judge demanded last year that a doctor oversee the process of putting an inmate to death.

The state had revised its lethal injection process in an attempt to satisfy the judge, requiring that a physician monitor "the essential body functions of the condemned inmate" and notify the warden if the inmate shows signs of "undue pain and suffering."

The medical board said in the court filing that the state Department of Correction and the Central Prison warden had given contradictory statements about the extent of doctors' involvement in executions.