As botched executions across the country have turned the public focus toward methods used to kill death-row inmates, the state Senate is poised to take up a bill that would hide the supplier, manufacturer and dosage of lethal drugs used for capital punishment in North Carolina.
The bill, titled “Restoring Proper Justice Act,” is scheduled for a vote by the full Senate Monday night. The proposed legislation, which was introduced in the state House of Representatives by Rep. Leo Daughtry, a Republican from Smithfield, also repeals the law requiring physicians to monitor lethal injections.
Instead, under the wording approved on Thursday by a Senate judiciary committee, medical professionals, such as physician assistants, nurse practitioners, registered nurses, paramedics or emergency medical technicians could stand in if a doctor refused.
Daughtry, who was at the committee meeting to introduce the proposal already approved by the House, said several times the lawmakers were not there for “an argument about the death penalty.” “We already have the death penalty,” Daughtry said. “The roadblocks in front of the death penalty have stopped us from using the punishment.”
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Though North Carolina is one of 31 states with the death penalty, there has not been an execution since 2006. A series of lawsuits filed in the state courts has created a de facto moratorium on executions for the past nine years. And some wonder whether more legal challenges will follow the proposed changes to the execution protocol.
“It’s not going to speed up executions,” said Ballard Everett, a Republican consultant with Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty who voiced his opposition at the committee meeting. “Lawsuits are inevitable with this piece of legislation.
“So we’re encouraging the legislature to really debate the bigger question — so if we’re not going to use the death penalty, why not go ahead and replace it with life in prison without parole and save the state $11 million dollars this year?”
The debate last week, though, was about how much information the public should possess about North Carolina’s execution protocol. Botched executions in Oklahoma, Ohio and Arizona in 2014 have prompted some states to hide that information from public view and oversight. Other states have called for more openness.
The North Carolina bill would exempt the execution procedure from any oversight by the state’s Rules Review Commission and leave the decision about whether to make the protocol public up to the secretary of the state Department of Public Safety, a non-elected post.
Sen. Angela Bryant, a Democrat and lawyer from Rocky Mount, introduced several proposed amendments in an attempt to remove the cloak of secrecy from the way the state carries out its harshest punishment. “This is not a time to remove public input and awareness of what you’re doing in government,” Bryant said.
There are 148 people on North Carolina’s death row, one of whom has been there since 1985.
In 2013, the public safety secretary changed North Carolina’s execution protocol from using a three-drug cocktail to a single-drug lethal injection. The change came at a time when many European-based drug manufacturers had banned U.S. prisons from using their drugs in executions. The protocol change also came shortly before an important court hearing for a lawsuit filed by N.C. death row inmates in 2007, challenging the lethal injection as “cruel and unusual punishment” and therefore a constitutional violation. That lawsuit is pending.
Bryant failed to persuade the Senate judicial committee to provide the public with information about the manufacturer of the lethal drugs to be used in executions. “It’s a volatile issue,” Daughtry said. “If you tell them where the drug comes from, there’ll be 300 people outside the [manufacturer’s] building. That is not something we want to occur."
Bryant responded: “Abortion is a controversial thing, but we don’t try to hide where the clinics are. There could be 300 people out there, and you’d stand on your head for their rights.”
David Weiss, a staff attorney for the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation, argued during the public comment period for more openness for what he described as “one of the most important, one of the most serious functions that our state government undertakes.”
“The process should be done openly, transparently so the people of North Carolina have input,” Weiss said. “This really removes transparency from the execution process.”