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Where the Death Penalty Stands in North Carolina

It has been more than two years since anyone was executed in North Carolina. In the last few weeks, several legislative actions and court decisions have made it seem likely that executions will resume in the near future. What is really going on?

Medical Board

On May 1st, the North Carolina Supreme Court issued its decision in a lawsuit between the North Carolina Medical Board and the NC Department of Correction. The Medical Board, an agency responsible for licensing and regulation of doctors in North Carolina, had issued a policy stating that doctors cannot ethically participate in executions. The Department of Correction claimed that it was unable to find a doctor willing to assist with lethal injection, and that it was therefore unable to execute its inmates. The DOC sued, and the NCSC ruled that because the legislature has required physician participation in executions, it is not within the power of the Medical Board to sanction doctors for doing so.

Council of State

On May 13th, Wake County judge Donald Stephens issued a decision denying and dismissing the claims brought by several death row inmates against the Council of State, a body of elected officials responsible for, among other things, approving North Carolina’s lethal injection protocol. The inmates had alleged that the Council did not follow proper administrative procedure in approving the protocol. Judge Stephens found that the inmates did not have standing to challenge the Council’s decision, and that the Council’s approval was not subject to further review by any court.

Lethal Injection

Judge Stephens also issued an order setting a hearing during the June 1 session of court for oral argument on the remaining 8th Amendment issues in the inmates’ case. Both parties are expected to brief the impact of the US Supreme Court’s decision in Baze v. Rees on the question of whether the North Carolina lethal injection protocol is cruel and unusual.

Legislature

The Senate chamber of the North Carolina General Assembly voted this week to approve the Racial Justice Act, which would allow pre-trial defendants as well as death row inmates to challenge the decision to seek or impose the death penalty in their case if it was based on impermissible racial bias. The bill passed with an amendment which prohibited the Medical Board and other health care agencies from disciplining medical professionals involved in executions, removed the requirement that the Council of State approve the execution protocol, and mandated that executions cannot occur more than once every 30 days.

What Happens Now

There will be no appeal in the Medical Board litigation, but it is possible for the inmates to appeal Judge Stephens’ decision in the Council of State matter; some of Stephens’ findings were contrary to an earlier ruling by another judge. A specific date has not yet been set for the hearing on the 8th Amendment issues related to lethal injection. Finally, the House has yet to pass the Racial Justice Act, and if it does, any discrepancies between the House and Senate versions of the bill will need to be worked out.

It is hard to say exactly if or when executions will resume in North Carolina. Injunctions are still in place preventing the State from re-setting executions dates for the six residents of death row who were scheduled to be executed before the moratorium began.

What we do know is that our system of capital punishment remains imperfect. In the years we have been without executions, three innocent men were freed from death row, having served a combined 41 years and faced death for crimes they did not commit. Many of those who will face execution when the moratorium ends were convicted in an era when the standards for performance by defense counsel and fairness from prosecutors were far below what they are today. No one should be executed until all litigation is resolved and the known flaws with North Carolina’s death penalty have been remedied.

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