RALEIGH — The N.C. Secretary of Public Safety changed the lethal injection protocol for death row inmates weeks before the state Court of Appeals was scheduled to hear legal arguments in a long-standing case.
Prisoners sued the N.C. Department of Correction in 2007, challenging the lethal injection protocol as cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the U.S. Constitution.
At that time, executioners injected a three-drug cocktail. But in the lawsuit, prisoners raised concerns about the possibility of improper administration of the injection, leaving someone conscious as the paralytic and heart-stopping drugs take effect.
On Oct. 24, Frank Perry, the state secretary of public safety, signed a new protocol that calls for the use of a single-drug lethal injection. On Oct. 30, attorneys for the state and prisoners asked to postpone arguments before the state Court of Appeals so they could study what impact the new procedure would have on the legal challenge.
The case was removed from this weeks arguments calendar.
North Carolina has had a de facto moratorium on executions since 2006, when a series of lawsuits challenging the fairness and humanity of the state-sponsored executions were filed.
In March 2012, Don Stephens, Wake Countys senior resident Superior Court judge, rejected the inmates claims and upheld the states execution protocol under state and federal constitutions.
That decision came after two other cases were settled at the N.C. Supreme Court level.
In January 2007, the North Carolina Medical Board issued a statement that would have kept doctors from participating in executions. The states highest court ruled that the medical board overstepped its authority and could not punish doctors if they participated.
Inmates also challenged the process used to determine the execution protocol, but that lawsuit failed at the state level.
Push for executions
At a time when many states have done away with or are doing away with the death penalty, the Republican-led General Assembly in North Carolina has pushed to restart executions.
This year, the legislature repealed the 2009 Racial Justice Act, which had made it possible for death row inmates to have their sentences converted to life without the possibility for parole if they could show through statistical evidence or otherwise that race had played a prominent role in their sentences.
Despite the legislative action, legal analysts have speculated that existing lawsuits and potential challenges related to the repeal of the Racial Justice Act offer many obstacles to a quick return of executions in North Carolina.
In addition to the court challenges, many polls, both statewide and nationally, show diminishing support for the death penalty.
The new North Carolina protocol calls for a single dose of pentobarbital, a drug used in other states.