Once again, the ethical contortions inherent in the death penalty are on display as all three branches of state government wrestle with contradictions that simply can’t be resolved. (See “Death penalty issues bounce back to judge.”)

A Wake judge delays three executions by lethal injection because a new set of rules has to be written when the N.C. Medical Board says doctors, who take an oath to “do no harm,” cannot ethically participate. A House committee struggles to assure fair application of a punishment that experience has demonstrated is grossly unfair. And the Council of State accepts a procedure that says a doctor must attend executionsbut isn’t really participating.

It’s lunacy run amok. We face the same dilemma again and again: How can we administer an irrevocable punishment when it violates so many of our most basic beliefs? We believe in the sanctity of lifein fact, we limit application of our harshest penalty to those who violate it. We have an extended appeals process because we believe the death penalty must be more fairly applied than any other punishment. And we can only execute a human being if it doesn’t violate the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Where to start? My 13-year-old daughter has no trouble seeing how hypocritical it is for the state to kill someone as a punishment for … killing. New abuses involving capital cases turn up every year. The Common Sense Foundation found that at least 37 people on North Carolina’s death row “did not have lawyers at trial who would meet today’s minimum standards of qualification.” An inordinate percentage of those sentenced to death are poor and minorities. The American Bar Association has called for a moratorium because use of the death penalty is “a haphazard maze of unfair practices with no internal consistency.”

And now, gruesome problems have arisen across the country in the application of lethal injection, a punishment that was believed to be less cruel than otherswhich brings us back to the need for doctors to be present.

Gov. Mike Easley should do what governors in nine states have done and delay executions until the General Assembly can address the legal and medical questions raised by lethal injections. If he doesn’t, we hope Wake Superior Court Judge Donald Stevens sees the morass we’ve gotten ourselves into and rules that the execution protocols approved Tuesday by the Council of State first must be addressed by the legislature. And we hope that legislatorsparticularly progressives like Durham Rep. Mickey Michaux, who was inexplicably absent from Monday’s committee meetingenact a death penalty moratorium until these questions are answered. Even if none of that happens, executions in North Carolina may be stalled anyway when inmates’ attorneys take the issue to court.

It’s a reminder that the death penalty has tied us up in knots thatlike the punishmentcan’t be fairly undone.