NC executions put on hold by 2007 lawsuit

ablythe@newsobserver.comApril 30, 2014 

In North Carolina, no one has been executed since 2006, when a series of lawsuits filed by death row inmates created a de facto moratorium.

Among the challenges was a contention by inmates sentenced to death that North Carolina’s execution method was “cruel and unusual punishment” and therefore unconstitutional.

In March, a three-judge N.C. Court of Appeals panel sent the case back to the trial court where it started.

Much has changed since the prisoners filed the suit in 2007. The inmates argued then that the three-drug cocktail used to execute North Carolina prisoners – a combination that was supposed to render the inmate unconscious first, then paralyze all muscles before inducing cardiac arrest – inflicted cruel and unusual punishment, especially if the first drug failed or the injection was administered improperly.

As the prisoners’ case worked its way up to the three-judge N.C. appeals court panel, the N.C. General Assembly made changes to the law governing the execution protocol process, and the state secretary of public safety adopted a new protocol.

In October 2013, Frank Perry, the secretary of public safety, adopted a new lethal injection protocol that calls for a single-drug injection.

As that case awaits scheduling in Wake County Superior Court to return to the core questions, death penalty critics say the Oklahoma case should give pause in North Carolina.

“This horrendous situation is all the more regrettable because it was easily avoidable,” James Coleman, a Duke University law professor, said about the botched Oklahoma execution. “The state used a drug combination – for the first time and untested – because it was in a rush to execute the two men scheduled for a double execution.”

“More than anything, the debacle exposes the Oklahoma Supreme Court for acting expediently, when its stay of the execution to demand transparency about the drugs was challenged politically," Coleman added. “The court vacated its stay when challenged by the governor and a political group that threatened to oppose a member of the Supreme Court who was facing voter approval for reappointment. This, unfortunately, is what’s happening to our ‘independent’ judiciary – groups and politicians feel free to challenge unpopular legal decisions on the basis of political considerations when they don’t like the legal outcome.”

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