State Politics

Senate votes to hide execution details; doctors out of death chamber

North Carolina residents will not have access to information about the lethal drugs used to execute death row inmates, according to a state Senate bill approved on Monday.

The legislation, which passed 33-16, also removes the requirement that doctors be present in North Carolina’s death chamber, an amendment designed to do away with one of the many legal in the way of restarting executions.

The Senate has made a minor change to the bill, which began in the House. As a result, the two chambers will have to agree on a common version before it would be sent to Gov. Pat McCrory.

Doctors opposed to the death penalty have filed one of many lawsuits in North Carolina since 2006, when the last execution in the state occurred. The bill approved on Monday states that medical professionals, such as physician assistants, nurse practitioners, registered nurses, paramedics or emergency medical technicians, could stand in if a doctor refused.

Many medical associations oppose having physicians participate in executions. N.C. House Rep. Leo Daughtry, sponsor of the bill titled “Restoring Proper Justice Act,” has described the changes to the execution process as an antidote to the de facto moratorium that occurred after 2006, when doctors and death row inmates challenged the methods used to kill prisoners as “cruel and unusual punishment” prohibited by the Constitution.

Sen. Angela Bryant, a Democrat and lawyer from Rocky Mount, pointed out on Monday night that further legal challenges are likely to follow. She tried and failed to persuade the Senate to adopt an amendment that would open up the execution process to public oversight.

The North Carolina Press Association and North Carolina Association of Broadcasters opposed the bill “to the extent that it would create additional exceptions to the Public Records Act and keep secret certain records and information that have historically been – and should remain – the property of the people,” said Tim Nelson, government affairs for NCPA and NCAB, who spoke before the committee last week in opposition to the bill.

The move to hide the manufacturer, source and dosage for death row lethal injection comes at a time when many states are running short of the drugs they typically use for executions. 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.

Other states have taken steps similar to North Carolina, hoping to shield the manufacturers from protests that death penalty opponents are likely to organize. Some states, though, have moved away from the death penalty, citing cost and questions of fairness in who gets the death penalty.

“Horrifically botched executions in other states have demonstrated that we need more transparency, not less, when it comes to who is supervising executions and which drugs are being used to kill inmates,” said Sarah Preston, acting executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina. “North Carolina can’t hide behind a veil of secrecy when it carries out this ultimate and irreversible punishment. Courts, lawyers and the public have a right to know basic details about how the government executes inmates in their name. We urge Gov. McCrory to veto this bill in order to keep capital punishment transparent and spare the state costly legal challenges.”

Steve Dear, executive director at the People of Faith Against the Death Penalty for the past 18 years, spoke at a rally before the vote.

“This bill would not even restart executions, its stated goal,” Dear said. “There are still many other obstacles standing in the way, most notably, ongoing litigation about constitutional issues surrounding the state’s lethal injection protocol.”