RALEIGH — The State Supreme Court issued a ruling today that essentially gives the Council of State, the 10 statewide elected officials, authority to continue setting execution protocol for death row inmates without publicly meeting.
The decision has little impact on the de facto moratorium on executions that has been in place since 2007, when a group of inmates challenged execution methods at the time as cruel and unusual punishment.
The case decided this week by the state's highest court focused on a procedural point whether Administrative Law Judge Fred Morrision had jurisdiction to order the Council of State to revise its execution protocol as he tried to do more than four years ago.
Lawyers for death row inmates argued that the council failed to follow state statutes when members signed off on new execution procedures in February 2007. The state Department of Corrections announced new procedures two weeks prior to that Council of State meeting, but a judge almost immediately put a halt on several executions, citing a century-old law that requires the governor, lieutenant governor and other top department heads to consider any new death penalty protocols.
The revised protocol, approved in February 2007 called for a more restrictive role of doctors in executions at a time when physicians were standing up in opposition to the death penalty and refusing to take part in executions as had been required.
The protocol also details the equipment and drugs to be used in executions and the personnel qualified or required to attend or participate in them.
Prisoners contended that the council hastily approved the new lethal injection protocol without hearing from those representing death row inmates.
"We think it's important not to have that shroud of secrecy," said David Weiss, a lawyer with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.
The case has been one of several contributing to what essentially has been a de facto moratorium on executions for more than five years.
The last execution in North Carolina took place on Aug. 18, 2006, when Samuel R. Flippen, 36, was put to death for killing his 2-year-old stepdaughter.
In addition to the lawsuits, most North Carolina death row inmates have challenged their sentences of prosecutions using a fledgling state law that allows them to use statistical evidence in arguments that racial bias played a role in their cases.
Though Republicans in the state House of Representatives attempted to repeal that law this year, the issue was rolled over to the next legislative session.