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Bills address nuances of executions

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The furor over the death penalty continued last week with SB 89, introduced by state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird (D-Orange), which would form a 15-member legislative study committee to review North Carolina's lethal injection procedure. (See "Death penalty issues bounce back to judge," Feb. 7.) Fellow Triangle delegates state Sens. Bob Atwater, Janet Cowell and Vernon Malone co-sponsored the measure.

"I think we need to pause," Kinnaird said of the controversy. "I don't think any of us have a sense of it."

The commission would consider several aspects of executions, including the chemicals to be used, the medical soundness of the procedure and the people permitted to administer the drugs.

Although judges and juries could sentence offenders to death during the study, there would be a moratorium until June 1, 2009, after the committee's final report to the General Assembly.

The N.C. Medical Board has determined it violates a doctor's oath to assist executions; the state's nursing board is also considering similar ethical questions. The Pharmacy Board has yet to chime in, but Kinnaird said, "It should violate the ethics of a pharmacist to deliver deadly chemicals. That leaves med techs, but that's practicing medicine without a license."

But executions wouldn't qualify as practicing medicine, under SB 114, introduced by Republican Phil Berger of Rockingham. In addition, the measure creates loopholes for medical licensing boards, prohibiting them from disciplining doctors, nurses or pharmacists for participating in executions.

Within the next few weeks, Kinnaird plans to introduce another death penalty-related bill that would ban executions of the mentally ill. In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that such executions are unconstitutional, but didn't define competence. Nor did the court mandate procedures to determine if an inmate is legally insane. According to Amnesty International, 100 inmates diagnosed with mental illness have been executed in the United States, including three in North Carolina.

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