Lethal injection became the standard method of execution in North Carolina in the 1980s, as the state searched for a more palatable way to kill people after years of grisly electrocutions and gassings. However, lethal injection has proven to be complicated, error-prone, and torturous. CDPL successfully challenged North Carolina’s execution protocol and, in 2007, brought executions to a halt. The state has not executed anyone since, and litigation over the state’s execution method is ongoing.
In the years leading up to the halt, witness reports show that North Carolina carried out many cruel and painful executions. In affidavits, witnesses described prisoners convulsing, struggling against their restraints, and gasping for breath for several minutes. “Instead of the quiet death I expected, Willie began convulsing,” defense attorney Cynthia Adcock said after witnessing the 2001 execution of Willie Fisher. “The convulsing was so extreme that Willie’s cousin jumped up screaming.” N.C. prison officials dispute that these executions were botched, but witness observations are remarkably similar to proven instances of torture in other states.
North Carolina lethal injections not only torture the people strapped to the gurney, they traumatize witnesses and prison staff. Time and again, state officials have proven unable to carry out executions in a dignified and competent way.
In past North Carolina lethal injections, state officials have:
Repeatedly ignored the law requiring a physician to oversee and participate in executions. The most recent prison physician to attend executions said that, at some lethal injections, he was present but did not participate or monitor the person who was executed in any way. At several other executions, he said he was not even on the same floor as the execution chamber.
Used dangerous equipment, and lied to the manufacturer to get it. During a 2006 lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s lethal injection procedures as cruel and unusual, a federal judge found that there were “substantial questions as to whether North Carolina’s execution protocol creates an undue risk of excessive pain.” In response, state officials revised the execution protocol to require that a physician observe a brain wave monitor and ensure that the individual was unconscious. The state purchased a bispectral index monitor, which was never tested or approved by the FDA for the prison’s intended use in executions. When purchasing the monitor, the prison told the manufacturer it would be used to monitor patients recovering from surgery. When the company discovered its true use, its medical director said the monitor could not guarantee that a person was unconscious and that the company would not have sold it to the prison if it had known it was for use in executions.
Lied to a federal judge about the role of physicians during executions. Two people were executed after the purchase of the monitor. However, in those cases, the prison physician said he was not asked to read the monitor, nor was he trained to use it.
Now, more than fifteen years since the last North Carolina lethal injection, the situation is no better. In 2015, the N.C. legislature enacted laws making the process even less transparent and accountable to the public. Under those laws, the suppliers of drugs are kept secret, doctors are not required to oversee executions, and the execution protocol is exempt from a rule-making process that allows for public comment and oversight. Other recent laws have removed the oversight of the governor and the Council of State, and, incredibly, ensured that medical professionals cannot be disciplined if they perform negligently or incompetently during an execution.
In addition, North Carolina’s current execution protocol calls for pentobarbital, a drug that manufacturers no longer sell for executions. The state would be forced to substitute other drug combinations, which have proven disastrous in other states, or turn to unregulated compounding pharmacies.
CDPL will continue working to ensure that executions, including lethal injections, are never again carried out in North Carolina.
- The Atlantic on the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma
- N.C. Administrative Law Judge’s ruling that North Carolina violated its own execution guidelines
- National lethal injection overview from the Death Penalty Information Center
- The American Medical Association’s position on lethal injection
- The American Bar Association’s position on execution transparency