Sunday, 4 February 2007

Stay of Executions

Stay of Executions

That's the title of an OpEd in today's Los Angeles Times by CBS News analyst Andrew Cohen. It's subtitled, "After a generation of recklessly expanding the death penalty, the pendulum is swinging back."

LURKING LARGELY beneath the radar the last few weeks, while media coverage has focused on the perjury and obstruction-of-justice trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby and the Bush administration's flip-flop on domestic surveillance, were a series of important legal and political developments in the increasingly muddled world of capital punishment in the United States.

Nearly 13 years after U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun famously promised that he would no "longer tinker with the machinery of death," judges and politicians are tinkering — and doing so in ever emboldened ways. From Jan. 19 through Jan. 26, reports the Death Penalty Information Center, eight executions were stayed in North Carolina, Ohio and Texas — with four more postponed Thursday in Tennessee.

In North Carolina, a state judge blocked three executions after death row inmates challenged the state's lethal injection procedures. In Ohio, three more executions were stayed pending more thorough clemency reviews. Two Texas capital cases were halted, one by a state judge and one by the U.S. Supreme Court.

And in California, a federal trial judge in December declared unconstitutional the state's method of lethal injection. Even the conservative U.S. Supreme Court, which in large measure has the final say on whether and to what extent capital punishment may be used, has begun to pay more attention to death penalty procedures. The justices in January heard three capital cases out of Texas and agreed to hear another out of Washington state before the end of the term.

But it's not just the judiciary that gummed up the machinery of death last month. In Maryland, legislators proposed a measure that would ban capital punishment in the state, a bill Gov. Martin O'Malley said he would sign into law. In the Ohio cases, Gov. Ted Strickland, new to his post, declared that he has "serious questions" about capital punishment, and a former corrections director who oversaw executions in the Buckeye State said he favors the end of capital punishment. In New Jersey, a state commission recommended the abolition of the death penalty in that state too. And it was Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen on Thursday who declared a 90-day moratorium on executions, halting the four in that state.

Cohen also writes the Bench Conference blog at

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