Secretive. Rushed. Lacking proper oversight or procedure: these are not qualities that one wants associated with the government or justice system-– and certainly not with capital punishment. The death penalty is the most serious and final punishment that can be meted out, and one that should be considered very carefully, thoughtfully, and rationally.
That’s why legislation awaiting Governor McCrory’s signature-– House Bill 774-– raises serious concerns and questions. North Carolina has had an informal moratorium on the death penalty since 2006 due to ongoing legal challenges over the role of doctors in executions, the possibility of racial bias, and the way the execution protocol was approved.
Now, legislators have passed a bill that would attempt to restart executions by circumventing the objections that have arisen. These workarounds are likely to result in further legal challenges, costing the state more time, money and resources.
Here’s what the bill does:
- Allows the state to hide where it buys its execution drugs. This provision weakens the state’s public records laws and denies the public the opportunity to know if North Carolina is using some of the unregulated facilities for drugs that other states rely on-– and that have led to some gruesome executions.
- Allows executions to proceed without doctors present, instead opening the door for other health care workers, like nurses and physician’s assistants, to monitor the injections. Lack of adequate medical supervision makes the possibility of a botched execution even more likely.
Doctor participation has been a sticking point since 2007, when the N.C. Medical Board ruled that doctors who participate in executions violate the ethics of their profession. There is no indication, however, that PAs and nurses will be more willing to participate, and their organizations are lobbying in opposition to the bill.
- Exempts the state’s execution protocol from monitoring by the state’s Rules Review Commission. This change would prevent public oversight of the protocol and would shield the information about the protocol itself from public records law.
This shortsighted legislation comes as concerns and second thoughts about capital punishment are growing nationally. Since 2006, seven states have outlawed the death penalty, bringing the total without an active capital punishment statute to 19 states and the District of Columbia.
Since 2006, five men sitting on death row in North Carolina have had their convictions overturned. Henry McCollum served more than three decades for the 1983 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl before DNA evidence cleared him. Levon Jones was released after 14 years on death row for robbing and shooting a bootlegger named Leamon Grady after it was determined that the prosecution’s star witness lied.
Reports of botched executions, with lengthy deaths or complications, have grown, even with the use of sedatives and lethal injections. In 2014, an Oklahoma man being executed said, “I feel my whole body burning.” Another Oklahoma execution was halted after the lethal injection caused the inmate to convulse and he eventually died of a heart attack.
Just last month, the Supreme Court considered whether use of a particular sedative as part of executions amounted to cruel and unusual punishment because it had resulted in several botched executions. While the case was unsuccessful, the dissenting opinion suggested that the Court might reconsider the constitutionality of the death penalty.
While the majority of Americans still support the death penalty for those convicted of murder, opposition is growing. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center finds 56 percent favor the death penalty, but that is down from 62 percent just 5 years ago and 78 percent in 1996.
Do these new developments mean that Governor McCrory will veto H774? It remains to be seen where the Governor comes down on this issue, but politics suggest that he will let the bill become law – one way or another.
More than 1,000 people have been sent to North Carolina’s death row since 1910, and there are 149 people waiting there now. How many more will be executed?
Sara Lang has worked in North Carolina politics at the state, federal, and local levels for more than 15 years. A communications consultant, she lives in Cary with her husband, two young children, and a pampered dog.