Tuesday, 6 February 2007

Needling us to action

Needling us to action

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

THE ISSUE: Tennessee's governor has put executions on hold while the state studies its procedures for lethal injection. Alabama needs to go even further.

By most standards, Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen didn't do anything amazing. But it is hard to imagine such an extraordinary thing happening in Alabama.

Which is a shame.

All Bredesen did was acknowledge problems in the state's protocols for lethal injection - problems he said required him to call a 90-day moratorium on the death penalty and postpone four pending executions.

Mind you, the governor didn't change sides in the death penalty debate. He didn't call for a big, open-ended moratorium on capital punishment. He merely conceded that the state's specific execution guidelines were outdated, vague and vulnerable to legal challenges.

Bredesen said lethal injection procedures will be reviewed "from top to bottom."

The development in Tennessee mirrors a larger national trend as states and courts examine lethal injection procedures. A federal judge ruled last year that California's methods violate the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Closer to home, then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush suspended all executions in his state last year and appointed a commission to review lethal injection procedures. Bush's action came after a flubbed execution in which the needle overshot an inmate's veins, resulting in what experts fear was a painful, 34-minute death.

We're well aware that a slow, agonizing death is what some people believe convicted killers deserve. But in a civilized society, desires for vengeance must be tempered by humanity and justice. Our Constitution requires it. If there are valid concerns about lethal injection procedures, the only right response is to hold off on any executions and to ensure the methods are medically sound and humane.

So how much more should executions be suspended in Alabama, where the problems with capital punishment go far beyond how the needle is inserted, what drugs are injected and at what intervals?

Here, people facing the ultimate punishment too often don't even receive adequate legal representation, much less the vigorous defense that should be required in death penalty cases. Juries can unanimously recommend a life-without-parole sentence, only to be overruled by a judge who can't afford to appear "soft on crime" as he seeks re-election. The difference between life and death often seems to come down to such arbitrary factors as race, social standing, even geography.

Yet year after year, proposals to temporarily stop executions die an agonizing death in our Legislature.

Since legislators have failed to act, Gov. Bob Riley should build on the example set by his Tennessee counterpart.

As governor, Riley can singlehandedly block executions, and he doesn't even have to have a good reason. But the truth is, Riley has no shortage of good reasons to call at least a temporary halt to executions until the state ensures the death penalty is applied fairly and accurately.

It would be an extraordinary action for Riley to take, for sure. But it is the right thing to do.

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