Alas, we take a serious look at how we kill the condemned
First came the actions in California and Florida suspending execution by injection.
Then came a call by a Tennessee Supreme Court justice to follow that lead. Now, to ensure "no cloud hangs over the state's actions in the future,'' Gov. Phil Bredesen has halted all executions in the state for 90 days.
The governor, when asked about it yesterday, said he had not read the opinion issued last year by now-retired Justice Adolpho A. Birch, in which Birch called on Tennessee's chief executive to suspend lethal ejection executions.
"What I did was fairly narrow in scope," Bredesen said.
Still, there is a great deal of concern about the way states, including Tennessee, use injections to execute prisoners — so much so that officials are taking a critical look at how it is done.
Bredesen said his aim is "to fix" the state's death penalty procedures by having the Department of Correction come up with new written protocols on how to put the condemned to death by injection and electric chair.
But can it be fixed? I don't think so. Why take someone's life when we could lock him away for the rest of his natural life? In a civilized society, isn't that enough?
As for Birch, he dissented in an October hearing in the case of Paul Dennis Reid, who was sentenced to die for the three murders committed at a McDonald's restaurant in Donelson in 1997. The court's majority, however, upheld Reid's conviction and sentence.
At that time, Birch mentioned the California and Florida situations.
"I would urge the executive to follow the lead of California and Florida, whose governors have suspended executions by lethal chemical until in-depth investigations can be conducted into the propriety of using a certain chemical as a killing agent," he wrote in his dissent, filed in December.
"I am led to believe that Tennessee includes the same lethal chemical(s) in its protocol as do California and Florida."
Just a couple of weeks earlier, the use of lethal injection in California and Florida was ordered halted because of questions about how long it takes the prisoner to die and the possibility of pain and discomfort before death.
In California, a federal judge ruled that the method was unconstitutional because it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. And in Florida, then-Gov. Jeb Bush suspended the practice after an execution took 34 minutes, during which time the prisoner appeared to suffer.
Bredesen said his decision to halt executions here came after a hearing had been called by U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger, who wanted state officials to bring forth its procedures.
"When the attorney general went and got the procedures, they were awful,'' Bredesen told The Tennessean's editorial board yesterday. "From what I can tell, there was nothing wrong with the two executions (that have been carried out in the state since 1960); it was simply a matter of stuff that ought to be spelled out in great detail and very carefully so there are no mistakes."
"They don't specify the amount of those chemicals'' to be used, he said of the state's protocols.
The governor said he still supports the death penalty, "but it would be awful having somebody new coming in'' and having a disaster similar to that which took place in Florida.
Yes, it would. So, why not just do away with the death penalty in Tennessee?