North Carolina Supreme Court Debates Doctors' Roles in Executions

The North Carolina Supreme Court heard arguments on November 18 on whether the state's Medical Board can sanction doctors who participate in an execution. The Board forbids physician participation in executiions as a violation of the medical code of ethics. At the same time, North Carolina's death penalty statute requires a physician’s presence at all executions.

A Wake County judge ruled last year that the Medical Board had overstepped its authority and the state law took precedence, a decision that the Board then appealed. The debate in the state’s Supreme Court centered on the proper definition of “present” as it is used in the law and to accurately define what doctors had been doing at the state’s executions for the last hundred years.

"What does the word 'present' mean? That's really what this case turns on," said Todd Brosius, an attorney for the Medical Board. "This is a word we understand as elementary school children. When the teacher calls out your name at roll and you say, 'Present,' it means that you're there. It doesn't have any implication as to what you're doing."

Justice Edward Thomas Brady challenged the Board’s reasoning, arguing that some dictionaries define "present" as being "actively involved." He continued, "A physician has education, training and experience. If he's just standing there or sitting there like a potted plant, what's the purpose of that?" Brady asked, "If a condemned inmate is suffering and becomes conscious and is convulsing ... the doctor should just stand there?"

The hearing ended with Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson suggesting that the court refer the matter back to state lawmakers to resolve the question of doctors’ roles in executions. "This court and other courts are always taken to task for legislating. Why shouldn't we just send this right on over (to the General Assembly) where it belongs?" Timmons-Goodson said.

A ruling is not expected for a few months, and executions will likely remain on hold as the court considers the case.

(M. Burns, “Death penalty debate goes before NC Supreme Court,” WRAL News, November 18, 2008). See also Executions and Lethal Injection.