Last week, Indonesia’s government descended into barbarism by executing eight prisoners for drug offenses.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court debated whether botched executions violated the Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
Last week, Nebraska’s Republican-dominated legislature moved to abolish that state’s death penalty.
And last week, of all weeks, the North Carolina House voted to clear the way for the resumption of state-sponsored killing.
Legal challenges have locked North Carolina’s execution process for nearly a decade. During the unofficial moratorium, evidence of the brutality and errors surrounding executions has become overwhelming. But that didn’t stop House Republicans from pushing through a bill that would eliminate what has become a major obstacle to carrying out the death penalty here – the lack of doctors the law requires to attend executions.
Getting past doctors
In 2007, the N.C. Medical Board decided that doctors who participate in executions violate the ethics of their profession. By a vote of 84-33, the House passed a bill Wednesday that sidesteps the need for doctors by expanding the list of medical personnel who can monitor executions to include physician assistants, nurse practitioners, registered nurses and emergency medical technicians. A doctor would still need to be nearby to certify the death.
Since coming under Republican control in 2011, this legislature has made going backward its preferred direction on issues of taxation, voting rights, environmental regulation, education funding, gun laws and women’s health. But its effort to restart executions is especially retrogressive with an added element of macabre.
The death penalty is unnecessary, unjust and irreversible. Its use now is only an act of vengeance against a few prisoners who happened to be convicted in death penalty states and whose lawyers failed to negotiate the many legal options that could have spared them. Prosecutors say the death penalty is a useful tool for negotiating with suspects, but an absolute penalty cannot be both fairly applied and negotiable.
The death penalty is fast becoming an anachronism, the act itself fading into the past along with its discarded instruments, the noose, the firing squad, the gas chamber and the electric chair. Thirty two states still have death penalty statutes, but only a few have carried out regular executions since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Of the 1,407 executions since then, the great majority – 1,114 – were in the South – and more than half of those – 636 – were carried out in Texas and Oklahoma, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. North Carolina executed 43 prisoners during the period, but none since 2006. The state has 149 prisoners on death row.
The erratic application of the death penalty makes it unfair and its unfairness is dangerously compounded by its finality. Wrongly convicted people could be executed and likely have been. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty, the emergence of new evidence has led to the exoneration of 152 death row inmates, seven of them in North Carolina. The most recent exoneration came last September with the release of Henry Lee McCollum after almost 31 years on death row.
McCollum said as he left prison, “You’ve still got innocent people on North Carolina death row.
That call for help wasn’t heard in the state House on Wednesday. Instead, Leo Daughtry, a Smithfield Republican and sponsor of the bill, said North Carolina should get back to executing death row inmates because the law allows it. “If we do have (the death penalty), we need to enforce the law,” he said.
Drop an unjust law
A push impose a penalty so flawed and so serious should be based on more than “because we can.” Laws are not enforced for their own sake. They are enforced because they serve justice or the public good. When a law fails to do that, it should be repealed or struck down. That is what should happen in North Carolina and has happened since 2007 in Illinois, New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, Connecticut and Maryland.
Furthermore, Daughtry’s bill does not enforce the law. It changes the law so that North Carolina can more readily resume executions. The state Senate should reject this bill and, if necessary, Gov. Pat McCrory should veto it. Lives, perhaps even innocent lives, will depend on it.