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January 4, 2008

"Death Penalty Walking"

The title of this post is the title of this terrific new Time magazine article.  The piece is quite intriguing and effective, even though covering familiar ground.  Here are excerpts:

On Jan. 7, the supreme court will hear oral arguments in a pair of Kentucky lawsuits challenging the lethal three-drug cocktail used in most U.S. executions.... In a perfect world, perhaps, the government wouldn't wait 30 years and several hundred executions to determine whether an execution method makes sense. But the world of capital punishment has never been that sort of place....

Decades of well-intentioned brainstorms like [the three-drug cocktail] -- legal, medical, procedural, political -- have accumulated into one thoroughly screwed-up system. Any other government program that delivered 3% of what it promised -- while costing millions of dollars more than the alternative -- would be a scandal, but the death penalty is different.  In its ambiguity, complexity and excess, the system expresses a lot about who we are as a nation. We're of mixed minds, and most of us would rather not spend a lot of time thinking about killing. A majority of Americans support the idea of capital punishment -- although fewer are for it if given a choice of life without parole. At the same time, a substantial number in a recent poll said they could not serve on a death-penalty jury.

Our death penalty's continued existence, countering the trend of the rest of the developed world, expresses our revulsion to violent crime and our belief in personal accountability.  The endless and expensive appeals reflect our scrupulous belief in consistency and individual justice.  This is also a nation of widely dispersed power -- many states, cities and jurisdictions.  Out of this diversity has emerged the staggering intricacy of death-penalty law, as thousands of judges and legislators from coast to coast struggle to breathe real-life meaning into such abstract issues as what constitutes effective counsel, what is the proper balance of authority between judge and jury, what makes a murder "especially heinous," what qualities and defects in a prisoner compel mercy, and so on.

Such parsing has gone on for nearly 50 years, since the gestation of the model penal code after World War II. But it isn't getting us anywhere. Even supporters of capital punishment can't admire a process in which fewer than 3 in 100 death sentences imposed in the U.S. are carried out in any given year.  California's death row houses more than 660 prisoners, but no one has been executed in the state in nearly two years. Pennsylvania, with 226 inmates on death row, hasn't carried out a sentence since the '90s.  In Florida a spree killer named William Elledge, who confessed to his crimes and has openly discussed his guilt in interviews, will soon complete his 33rd year on death row with his appeals still unresolved.  Thirty-three years!  He's one of about 55 men in Florida alone with more than 25 years on death row.

The more effort we invest in trying to make this work, the harder it seems to be to give up.  The death penalty in the U.S. is a wreck, but it's our wreck -- a collage of American attitudes, virtues and values.

The themes in this Time piece echoes themes in my recent writing on Baze on other recent scholarship available here and here and here.

January 4, 2008 at 07:18 AM | Permalink

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