N.C. judge blocks two executions Man convicted of murdering Rowan woman in 1993 impacted by ruling

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

RALEIGH (AP) — Citing a century-old law originally passed to keep the state from spending too much on its first electric chair, a judge put a pair of executions on hold Thursday as North Carolina struggles with the role doctors should play in carrying out the death penalty.

The immediate impact of the ruling issued by Wake County Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens is to stay the executions of Marcus Reymond Robinson, 33, who was scheduled to die at 2 a.m. Friday, and James Edward Thomas, 51, set to die next week.

That probably will also delay the Feb. 9 execution of James Adolph Campbell, 45, convicted in 1993 of kidnapping and murdering a young Rowan woman and leaving her body in a field.

Mike Stater, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Correction, said Thursday he couldn’t speak specifically about what the judge’s ruling might mean for Campbell’s scheduled execution.

“Right now, everything’s on hold, period,” he said. “I don’t think there’s going to be anything to be said until we hear from the court in the next few days.”

Judge Stephens’ ruling to stay the other two executions further complicated the ongoing debate over whether the state can carry out executions without the assistance of an attending physician. State law requires a doctor’s presence at executions, but the North Carolina Medical Board decided last week that any participation by a physician violated medical ethics.

In trying to sort out that dilemma, the state decided a nurse and medical technician — instead of a doctor — would monitor condemned inmates’ vital signs. Word of the change came Monday in a filing in a separate death penalty case, in which the state said a doctor would now only observe the execution and later sign a death certificate.

If a problem arose requiring the doctor to intervene, officials would stop the execution and reschedule it, allowing the physician to take part without violating the medical board’s ethics policy.

But Stephens said such a change in the state’s process for imposing a death sentence requires, under a law passed in 1909, the approval of the governor and the nine other statewide office holders.

“This is a critical aspect of the protocol in North Carolina, that a physician participate,” said Thomas’ attorney, Robert Zaytoun. “A physician can’t simply be a fly on the wall. The Department of Correction and the warden can’t make up the rules as they go along.”

The 1909 law was originally enacted when the state changed its method of execution from hanging to electrocution, which no longer is used. State attorney Tom Pitman said the law was in essence a technicality, written to ensure the corrections officials didn’t spend more than $1,000 on the new electric chair.

“It’s kind of uncharted territory,” said Barry McNeill, an assistant state attorney general who oversees prosecution of capital cases. “We’ve never had anything like this.”

The ruling appeared to catch the state off-guard. Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for state Attorney General Roy Cooper, said the state didn’t plan an immediate appeal of Stephens’ ruling. Robinson was returned to his regular cell Thursday afternoon after two days in the death watch area, said Department of Correction spokesman Keith Acree.

Renee Hoffman, a spokeswoman for Gov. Mike Easley, said he would not comment on the decision. She also declined to say whether Easley would call an unscheduled meeting of the Council of State to approve the new death penalty procedure, as Stephens required.

The next meeting of the 10-member council, comprised of the governor, lieutenant governor and the elected heads of eight state government agencies, is set for Feb. 6.

While attorneys for Robinson and Thomas said they hoped Stephens’ decision would lead North Carolina to follow the lead of Florida and other states that have recently enacted moratoriums on the death penalty, experts said that appeared unlikely.

“This is a procedural ruling that says you have to get the right people to sign off on these changes,” said Wake Forest University law professor Ron Wright. “I wouldn’t predict that in the long run this would shut down capital punishment.”

The state is also scheduled to execute James Adolph Campbell on Feb. 9. His attorney, William Livesay, said Thursday he was studying Stephens’ ruling and not yet decided if he would use it in his appeals.