First, let’s dispense with political correctness. I will not use the words “alleged” or “suspect.” We’re all adults here. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is the younger brother whose bombs killed 3 innocents or maimed scores of participants or bystanders in the Boston Marathon.


I was proud to be called a physician that day. Not because of anything I did. I did nothing. But because of the gut-wrenching work my colleagues in Boston did. Without their work (and the work of EMTs, nurses, scrub techs, helpful Good Samaritans, and so many others), many more would have perished. These colleagues deserve our collective gratitude. They are exemplars of what make civil society function. Some say they rose to the occasion. Others say they fell back on their training. The actual explanation is probably – a little of both.


Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is in custody, in a hospital bed. He has doctors and nurses who care for him. What does that mean? Most doctors, over the course of their career, have taken care of people who committed a crime. That’s not news. We do what we do. Render urgent care to the patient (whether or not he’s a criminal) and then let the justice system address the crime.


Most of us (in the U.S.) have never taken care of those hell-bent on mass destruction. It seems different. It almost certainly is different. I commend our colleagues for having the discipline to continue caring for such individuals. It must take discipline. Because those who wish to kill and maim so many innocents are beyond contempt.


In North Carolina, state law requires a physician be present at all judicial executions. In January 2007, the North Carolina State Medical Board adopted the policy that the physician’s code of ethics would be violated by a doctor taking part in an execution. This could subject the doctor to having his or her medical license revoked.


Because of this policy, physicians declined to participate in executions in any manner, which has resulted in a de facto moratorium on executions in North Carolina. The North Carolina Dept. of Corrections sued the Medical Board over the statute mandating a doctor’s presence at an execution. The Medical Board apparently did not object to doctors’ presence at executions, only to their participation through the monitoring of the condemned inmate’s vital functions.


The Board recognizes that N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15-190 requires the presence of “the surgeon or physician of the penitentiary” during the execution of condemned inmates. Therefore, the Board will not discipline licensees for merely being “present” during an execution in conformity with N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15-190. However, any physician who engages in any verbal or physical activity, beyond the requirements of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15-190, that facilitates the execution may be subject to disciplinary action by this Board.


In 2009, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that while the North Carolina Medical Board does “retain disciplinary power over a licensed medical doctor who participates in an execution,” the Board “may not discipline or threaten discipline against its licensees solely for participating in the execution alone.” Consistent with the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Board cannot take any disciplinary action against a physician for participation in an execution. While this ruling only applies to North Carolina, it will be considered “persuasive” if and when the issue arises in other jurisdictions.


What does it mean to be Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s doctor? Probably many things.