Doctors would no longer need to be present at state executions under a bill moving through the state House that its sponsor says could revive executions of death row inmates in North Carolina.
The bill specifically broadens who is allowed to be in the death chamber, expanding the medical personnel from doctors to include nurses, physician assistants and paramedics.
The change won approval in a House judiciary committee Tuesday even as botched executions in other states have raised questions about whether lethal injection drugs are causing condemned prisoners to suffer as they die.
The state last executed an inmate in 2006. Rep. Leo Daughtry, a Smithfield Republican, said in an interview that the change would help get executions going again by working around doctors reluctant to oversee them. Current law requires a doctor and the prison warden or a designee to be present at executions.
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“They won’t do it,” Daughtry said of doctors. “I’m not sure of the reason why. This will let somebody else do it. A number of people have been asking for years why don’t we try to do like other states, like Texas and other states have done.”
Texas has executed more prisoners than any other state – 524 since 1976 – including six this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. North Carolina and South Carolina are tied for ninth, with 43 executions since 1976. North Carolina has 149 inmates on death row.
Rep. Bob Steinburg, an Edenton Republican, said removing the doctor requirement troubled him in light of troubles with executions that have taken much longer than expected.
“This is something that really disturbs me deeply,” he said. Removing the doctor “seems to me to be pushing the envelope a little bit.”
At least four recent botched executions in other states were caused by use of new drugs.
States are running short of the drugs they typically use for lethal injections. As a result, they have begun experimenting with different drug mixes. Two bungled executions in Ohio last year resulted in a decision in that state to stop using a particular two-drug combination. The bill’s opponents said a provision in it would prevent the public from knowing what drugs the state is using in executions.
“Do we have a drug compound that the public can feel confident about?” asked Rep. Larry Hall, the House minority leader and a Durham Democrat.
It seems, based on what happened in other states, that the drug mixes are suspect, Hall said.
“And we’re moving away safeguards it appears that would be in place to help with that procedure,” he said.
States have turned to trained staff to insert needles for executions rather than rely on doctors because medical associations oppose having physician participation in executions, said Michael Rushford, president of the pro-death penalty Criminal Legal Justice Foundation in California.
The doctor is there to pronounce the person dead, he said.
“Most often, trained prison staff insert the needles for executions,” said Rushford. “They’re trained like any nurse or paramedic that gives shots all the time. It’s not brain surgery.”
It’s not clear that working around doctors will speed executions in North Carolina. A spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety said it did not ask for the bill now being advanced.
In 2007, the N.C. Medical Board threatened doctors who participated in executions with disciplinary action. The N.C. Department of Correction, saying it was unable to find doctors willing to be present, won a lawsuit against the Medical Board.
Most death row inmates had filed claims under the state’s Racial Justice Act, which allowed them to use statistics to support claims of racial bias in their cases. The act has since been repealed.
Still, the state has had a de facto moratorium on executions since 2007, when a series of lawsuits challenged the execution protocols and the treatment of prisoners.
“Executions are not going to restart any time soon, because those issues are still making their way through the courts,” said David Weiss, staff attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.
Transparency is important in execution protocols, Weiss said.
One of the last North Carolina prisoners executed, Michael Brown, was put to death in 2006 after the state assured a federal judge that it would use a special brain monitor and have a nurse and doctor in the observation room watch to make sure Brown remained unconscious.
An administrative law decision found the next year that the doctor did not read the monitor and was not trained in its use.
“There’s a history of prison officials saying they’re going to do one thing and doing another when they think nobody’s looking,” Weiss said.