North Carolina has not heard a final statement any day in the decade since.
Frank Baumgartner, a UNC political science professor who specializes in capital punishment in the U.S., said 10 years without an execution is atypical for the state.
“We’re kind of in this very strange little world with problems of how to kill people,” he said.
Jeffrey Welty, a professor at the UNC School of Government, said most states, including North Carolina, use a three-drug protocol in which drugs are administered in a specific sequence to cause death.
“That three-drug protocol became controversial when inmates began to argue the protocol created a risk that an inmate would be paralyzed from one drug, a paralytic, and unable to express pain or discomfort while the other drugs, in the process of causing death, cause excruciating pain,” he said.
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The procedure became more complicated when the North Carolina Medical Board announced in 2007 that no doctor should participate in executions, Baumgartner said. At the time, North Carolina law dictated a physician needed to be present for an execution.
In 2015, the state passed the Restoring Proper Justice Act, which permitted people with proper medical training, like EMTs, to carry out the procedure.
Baumgartner said this has raised more concerns for inmates on death row, who argue that without physicians present there is no guarantee the procedure would be properly performed.
Welty said although the debate over lethal injections has halted executions, the state’s Racial Justice Act of 2009 has been the main impediment.
The act permitted inmates on death row to challenge their sentencing by providing evidence of racial discrimination in their trials, like during the jury selection process.
“Maybe there was some sense early on that the Racial Justice Act would be something that minority defendants would fight or rely on,” he said. “But it turns out that virtually every inmate on death row filed claims under the Racial Justice Act.”
Kristin Collins, spokesperson for The Center for Death Penalty Litigation — a non-profit law firm that provides representation to inmates on death row — said their clients were able to use the act to file claims with the court.
Yet Collins said a majority of those claims have not been heard in court since the Racial Justice Act was repealed in 2013. She said the N.C. Supreme Court will soon take a case that will decide whether outstanding Racial Justice Act cases still have a right to be heard.
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Collins said the ongoing litigation surrounding both the Racial Justice Act and the lethal injection protocol has suspended executions in the state.
“But I really feel like those are not even the biggest issues anymore of why people are really queasy about having the death penalty,” she said.
Botched executions, high-profile exonerations of death row inmates and states being unable to find the right drugs to perform lethal injections have also contributed to the suspension of executions, she said.
Most recently, North Carolina-based pharmaceutical company Pfizer blocked the use of its drugs for executions in May of 2016.
“As a society in general we’re starting to see we can’t have this kind of blind trust in the criminal justice system that we maybe used to have,” she said. “All these police shootings and those types of things are starting to show us that the system has a lot of flaws and is not always fair.”
Baumgartner said decreasing murder rates have diminished the political movement to bring back executions in the state and said even when the state was performing executions, it was not a big part of the justice system.
“I think we can say with confidence we’re not going to see any executions in the immediate future — it’s all tied up in the courts,” he said.
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