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North Carolina kickstarts its machinery of death 

When he finally died, Dennis McGuire had gasped, choked, writhed against his restraints and clenched his fists for more than 20 minutes.

"I saw a man murdered," says Father Lawrence Hummer, a pastor who witnessed McGuire's death by lethal injection last January in Ohio. "It was just ghastly."

McGuire's gruesomely lengthy execution—it was supposed to take about five minutes—was performed with the untested combination of the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone.

The victim's family members say McGuire, convicted of raping and murdering a pregnant woman in 1989, got what was coming to him. Regardless, his death was one of at least three lengthy, torturous executions in the U.S. last year, the result of states' desperate experimentation to find reliable lethal injection drugs from a shrinking supply of willing drug providers.

There are 148 prisoners on death row in Central Prison in Raleigh, and it's unclear which inmate will be the guinea pig when executions restart in this state. Although pentobarbital has been North Carolina's execution drug of choice, a bill headed to the governor's desk will make secret the drug's source.

House Bill 774—the "Restoring Proper Justice Act," passed last week by the House and Senate, but as of press time not yet signed by Gov. Pat McCrory—prevents the public from knowing the identity of the providers of the execution drugs. And the state execution practices will have minimal oversight—and none by the federal government—according to the bill's primary sponsor, Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston.

"It's the kind of thing you'd expect in some authoritarian regime in the 1980s in the Southern hemisphere," says Stephen Dear, the outgoing executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty.

How and where North Carolina will obtain its drugs is a mystery. The N.C. Department of Public Safety has failed to respond to multiple requests from the INDY for information about its sources of pentobarbital.

The last execution in North Carolina occurred in 2006—the state's 408th since 1910—when convicted murderer Samuel Flippin was killed by lethal injection. DPS spokeswoman Pam Walker says the state has no queue or schedule for future executions.

Daughtry says his goal is to speedily resume executions in North Carolina and protect drug providers from hostile public demonstrations. "It's the law, but we don't have capital punishment in this state right now," he says. "It's been frustrating."

It's unclear whether Daughtry's legislation will restart executions. Many experts say the bill will only provoke legal challenges that could slow executions further.

"I heard Democrats say they would vote for this, if only because it's so illegal and unconstitutional, it will be litigated forever," says state Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange, a death penalty opponent. She voted against the bill last week.

A drug company's complaints shouldn't trump the public's access to information, she says. "Demonstrations are part of the American way. It's a sacred right in our democracy to protest what we don't like."

GOP lawmakers have amended the state's execution protocols before, exempting the execution protocol from review by the Council of State, a group of 10 elected officials who oversee state agencies. Critics of Daughtry's bill say the latest revision is even worse.

"In my 18 years of working on the death penalty, I have never seen legislation anywhere in the U.S. as reckless as this," says Dear. "Nothing exemplifies why government should not be allowed to kill more than this bill."

David Weiss, attorney for the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation, says the secrecy does not inspire public confidence. "One of the key mechanisms for holding government actors accountable is through elections or transparency. There is no requirement here that they let anybody know what they do, or that they consult with anyone with any expertise in developing the protocol."

Some critics have questioned whether the legislation would allow state officials to hide the names of the execution drugs from public disclosure, but Daughtry insists the name and cost of the drug will remain public, but not the source.

The shortage of homegrown execution drugs is because international drug manufacturers, under public pressure, have quit selling the U.S. drugs such as pentobarbital for use in lethal injections.

"The drug companies are so afraid of being boycotted," Daughtry says. "They'd rather not have their names known. It's important that drug companies have some understanding."

As a result, when the Danish producer of pentobarbital —hailed as one of the most "humane" drugs available for lethal injection—halted distribution of the drug for executions in 2011, states turned to compounding pharmacies, smaller, state-regulated outfits exempt from federal Food and Drug Administration rules. Lawyers and administrators, rather than doctors, were deployed to find the best lethal cocktail. (HB 774 also removes a requirement that doctors oversee executions. Now, any medical professional will suffice.)

In 2011, the DEA raided prisons in South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia for importing execution drugs from poorly regulated drug providers around the world.

Considering the botched executions of several inmates, Weiss says it's vital that the public knows if the state buys its drugs from a poorly regulated company or from a manufacturer with regulatory violations.

"It doesn't seem like now is the time to roll back the transparency of the process. If anything, we should be shining more light on it," he says.

"The state simply does not want to admit that they're killing somebody and they don't want to indicate how they're killing somebody," adds Hummer, the Ohio pastor who has worked with death row prisoners in his state since 2012. "They want to protect everybody involved with it. Let's stop killing people and then we don't have to protect anybody."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Unnatural born killers"

  • Execution bill provides little oversight in state-sponsored killing

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