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Reasons not to resume executions

By Chris Fitzsimon

The ruling by the North Carolina Supreme Court Friday that the state medical board can’t discipline doctors who play a role in executions has reignited the debate about capital punishment and is prompting calls from death penalty supporters for executions to resume at Central Prison.

Executions have been on hold for more than two years while the courts considered the medical board’s position that a doctor who monitors an inmate’s vital signs during the execution is violating medical ethics and can be disciplined.

The courts are also considering a challenge of a decision by the Council of State that approved the lethal injection protocol used to put inmates to death. That case is now before Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens.

The legal issues are complicated enough, though it baffles the mind how doctors who are sworn to do no harm can participate in any way in killing a person. But even when the courts have decided what the medical board can or can’t do and whether or not the Council of State acted improperly, the fundamental problems with the capital punishment system will remain in North Carolina.

Nine people have been wrongly convicted of first-degree murder in the state in recent years, and those are just the ones we know about. They were sentenced to death or life in prison for crimes they didn’t commit because eyewitness testimony was wrong, prosecutors withheld important evidence or jailhouse snitches lied to save their own skin.

The news of wrongful convictions in North Carolina and across the nation has shaken the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system. An inmate in Illinois was freed last week after serving 16 years behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit, a sentence he received when he was 13 years old.

Less than a year ago, two men on death row in North Carolina were released after spending a combined 29 years awaiting their execution for murders they had no role in. No one can dispute that the criminal system makes mistakes and there’s no way to correct them after an execution.

Last week unfortunately also raised questions about the credibility of the people in charge of prisons and executions in the state. Thanks to dogged reporting by the N&O’s Michael Biesecker, we learned the story of Timothy Helms, a mentally ill inmate in Alexander Correctional Institution who is now paralyzed after injuries that appear to be the result of a severe beating.

Before he slipped into a coma from bleeding in the brain, Helms said he was assaulted by guards for setting a fire in his cell. Corrections Secretary Alvin Keller said Friday that video from security cameras shows that he was not beaten and Keller attributes his fractured skull to a fall.

But Biesecker reports that Helms’ skull was fractured in the front and back and that security camera video shows that guards took Helms into a cell where the camera couldn’t see them and stayed 22 minutes. Doctors said Helms’ injuries appear to have been caused by a billy club.

Keller says the video shows that guards didn’t beat Helms. Common sense says something else and the episode hardly inspires confidence in the people who run the system that detemines who dies in the execution chamber.

Mistakes and trust aren’t the only problems with the way capital punishment is administered. A 2003 UNC study found that the odds of receiving a death sentence increase by almost three and half times if the murder victim is white.

Many of the 163 inmates currently on death row received poor representation at their trials. Most of them were sentenced before changes were made in the way lawyers are appointed in capital cases.

One report about Friday’s Supreme Court decision described it as removing a roadblock to resuming executions. Maybe; but there are huge barriers remaining, like race, trust and lack of confidence in a system plagued by mistakes.

Let’s don’t crank up the machinery of death again just yet.

Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of NC Policy Watch.

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