By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League of North Carolina
November 26, 2008
RALEIGH – The 163 prisoners on death row at North Carolina’s Central Prison have had more than a two-year reprieve as the courts, the state’s Medical Board and the Department of Correction clash over the role doctors are asked to play in lethal injection. But that could begin to change within the next three months as the N.C. Supreme Court heard arguments on the matter on Nov. 18 and is expected to release a ruling within about 90 days.
“We can only hope that this controversy that has resulted in an effective moratorium on the death penalty will be put to rest so that justice can be restored,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina. “God’s Word in Genesis 9:6 declares to governments of all eras: ‘Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.”
The case argued Tuesday hinges on a 2006 challenge to the use of lethal injection, a method capital punishment opponents say is cruel and unusual. Since that case, the state has been required by a federal judge to check the condemned inmate for indications of pain, which led North Carolina to change its execution procedure, which in turn led the Medical Board to threaten to punish any physician who participates in capital punishment, saying such action would violate the basic medical precept of doing “no harm.”
Although a judge earlier had ruled that the Medical Board overstepped its bounds in issuing the threats, and in essence obstructing North Carolina law; the state’s highest court has been asked to reverse the ruling.
Both Wayne Uber, a victim’s rights advocate, and Dudley Sharp, a death penalty expert, are cautiously optimistic that the state Supreme Court will not rule in favor of the Medical Board, whose arguments Uber described as weak.
“Medical groups cite that there is an ethical conflict for participation in the lethal injection process because medical professionals have a requirement to ‘do no harm,'” said Sharp, who founded Houston-based Justice Matters in 2004. “Those ethical codes pertain to the medical profession, only, and to patients, only. Judicial execution is not part of the medical profession and death row inmates are not patients.”
Similarly, according to media reports, N.C. Assistant Attorney General Joseph Finarelli argued that the medical board cannot discipline physicians “for doing something the Legislature has told them to do.”
Uber said he expects the Court to leave the issue at the feet of lawmakers rather than make a definitive ruling on the meaning of the word “present” as it pertains to the doctors’ role.
Currently, N.C. law requires that a physician be “present” during an execution. The state says doctors are there to monitor vital signs during execution and to certify the condemned person’s death, involvement that the medical board says goes beyond merely being “present.”
Uber, whose twin brother was murdered by a man now serving two life sentences in Florida, disagrees.
“When attending school I often said ‘present.’ I also understood that I might be called upon to use my knowledge or follow instructions of my teachers,” Uber pointed out. “The doctors have merely chosen to object to their role in executions and this basically puts them on the same side of the death penalty as the inmates that juries have said deserve it.”
A Chapel Hill resident, Uber called the death penalty “a complex social issue that should never be reduced to ‘an eye for an eye.'” However, he said it provides society with a “measure of finality” not found in life sentences.
“Life without parole often provides certain inmates with a lifetime of opportunities to escape prison, harass victims, witnesses and persons who have spoken out against them,” Uber said. “Death penalty foes often fail to recognize that many relatives of victims share their own kind of ‘life sentences’ while the murderer lives in prison.”
The Rev. Creech points out that the primary purpose of the death penalty is not personal revenge, but retribution exacted by a government to maintain order.
“According to Christian thought, no one has the right for any reason to harbor malice, anger or bitterness toward someone on a personal level – personal vengeance is denied. This is what Christ was preaching in Matthew 5:38-45,” Creech said. “Still Christ affirmed retributive justice by His own death on the Cross and Paul said the government bears the sword as ‘the minister of God’ for good and is an ‘avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil’ (Romans 13:4).”
“Social peace comes only when compassion is directed toward the victims of crime and not its perpetrators,” he added. “Retribution is the primary purpose of law and not the rehabilitation of the criminal or deterrence to criminal acts.”
Nonetheless, evidence presented before the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary in early 2006 included a number of recent studies that show the effectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent to murder.
“Almost all modern studies and all the refereed studies find a significant deterrent effect of capital punishment,” said Dr. Paul Rubin, an Emory University professor of economics and law, in his testimony before the committee. “The modern refereed studies have consistently shown that capital punishment has a strong deterrent effect, with each execution deterring between 3 and 18 murders.”
While opponents to the death penalty argue that there is always a chance that an innocent person will be executed, both Creech and Sharp point out that there is no proof of even one innocent nationwide being executed in more than 100 years.
“Death row inmates receive super due process of law that accounts for an average of 12 years of appeals,” Creech said.
“Of all criminal sanctions, the U.S. death penalty is arguable the most fair and most just based upon its extraordinary due process, alone,” Sharp said. “It is a just and appropriate sanction for some crimes – the foundation for all sanctions and, secondarily, it protects innocents at a level above all other sanctions.”
Nonetheless, even if the N.C. Supreme Court rules in favor of the Department of Correction over the medical board, it isn’t likely that executions would take place any time soon, as attorneys for several on death row have jumped into the legal melee challenging the method used in lethal injection.
Both Uber and Sharp urge North Carolina residents to educate themselves on the issue of capital punishment and follow this case as it unfolds, being ready to advocate for state law to be upheld.
“People need to voice their personal opinions to legislators. Write letters to editors of newspapers and comment to online articles,” Uber said. “Base your commentary on recent events, logic and facts.”