RALEIGH — The N.C. Supreme Court issued a ruling Friday that essentially gives the Council of State, the 10 statewide elected officials, authority to continue setting execution protocol for death row inmates without meeting publicly.
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 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 Morrison 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 of State failed to follow state statutes when members signed off on new execution procedures in February 2007. The state Department of Correction had announced the new procedures for lethal injection two weeks earlier, but a Wake County Superior Court judge almost immediately halted 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.
Prisoners contended that the council hastily approved the new protocol without hearing from those representing death row inmates.
Morrison, a judge who presided over disputes about state administrative procedures, agreed and tried to order the Council of State to reconsider the protocol. But the state Attorney General disputed that and took the case to Superior Court.
The revised protocol approved in February 2007 called for a more restrictive role for 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.
"We think it's important not to have that shroud of secrecy," David Weiss, a lawyer with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, said Friday.
The case has been one of several that's kept the state from executing anyone for more than five years.
The last execution in North Carolina took place 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 using a fledgling state law that allows them to use statistical evidence to argue that racial bias played a role in their cases.
Though Republicans in the state House of Representatives tried to repeal that law this year, the issue was rolled over to the next legislative session.