Feature

The death penalty: On hold, for now

With almost no fanfare, said Dahlia Lithwick in Slate.com, the U.S. has adopted “a de facto moratorium on the death penalty.” In staying three executions last month, the Supreme Court put capital punishment on hold until next spring, when it says it will rule on a case challenging Kentucky’s lethalinjection method. That case does not test the constitutionality of capital punishment itself, but it does question whether lethal injection, used by 37 of the 38 states that have the death penalty, violates the Constitution’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment.” Recent evidence suggests that the three-drug cocktail used by executioners does not always anesthetize prisoners before it stops their hearts, leaving them suffocating, conscious, and suffering. Last year, one man grimaced horribly for half an hour before he died; another screamed, “It’s not working!” Let’s stop fooling ourselves, said Mark Essig in The New York Times. Killing human beings will always be an unsavory business, and if the Supreme Court rules that the current lethal-injection regimen is cruel, it will result only in “a bit of tinkering intended to salve the national conscience.” The irony is that one of the earliest and most primitive methods of execution, the guillotine, is probably the quickest and most painless. “But Americans reject that method as too gruesome—too painful, in other words, for those watching the spouting blood.” So let’s stop tinkering, and admit that a criminal’s suffering is a small price to pay for maintaining a civil society, said Michael Smerconish in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Two major studies have found that the death penalty deters other criminals from killing; in the most recent of these, by Pepperdine University, every execution resulted in an average of 74 fewer murders nationwide the following year. “The question is not whether to spare the life of the convict, but rather, whether to spare the lives of 74 innocents.” That’s the real debate we should be having, said Robert L. Tchack in The Atlanta Journal- Constitution. Instead of bickering over appropriate levels of pain, “we first should answer the question of whether this country, as a whole, still believes in the death penalty.” Is it moral for the government to take lives? Can we mete out death justly, without the influence of wealth and race? Are we willing to take the risk of executing the innocent? Americans are now are very ambivalent about those questions, and until we resolve them, the executioner should remain on an extended vacation.

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