Tuesday, 18 December 2007

A time out on executions

Monday, December 17, 2007

THE ISSUE: If New Jersey's legislators can vote to abolish the death penalty, surely their peers in Alabama can vote to temporarily suspend the death penalty here.

New Jersey legislators voted last week to abolish the death penalty altogether in their state. Alabama legislators should at the very least stop inflicting the death penalty long enough to fix serious flaws in its, well, execution.

Even the most ardent fans of capital punishment don't want to see the wrong person put to death for a crime. Surely most people also want the death penalty to be applied fairly and to be reserved for the worst offenders.

Our state falls short on these measures - really, on every death penalty measure. When you don't guarantee that capital defendants have a quality defense, you're simply gambling with the rights and the lives of the accused.

In a perfect world, Alabamians would launch a real debate, like New Jersey, on whether it's worth it to keep gambling.

To their credit, after taking a good, long look, New Jersey lawmakers decided their death penalty system was not worth saving. The vote came years after the state's execution procedures were struck down and months after a special state commission earlier this year concluded that imposing a death sentence was more expensive than sending a defendant to prison for life. And by life, we mean just that: life, with no chance ever for parole.

The commission also found the death penalty hadn't deterred murders, and that the state ran a real risk of executing an innocent person.

"Capital punishment is costly, discriminatory, immoral and barbaric," New Jersey Assemblyman Wilfredo Caraballo said. "We're a better state than one that puts people to death."

True, New Jersey had only eight inmates on Death Row, and it hadn't executed anyone in more than four decades. It surely was never as devoted to death as Alabama, where 200 inmates are on Death Row and 13 have been executed just in the past four years.

But that doesn't make New Jersey's decision any less serious. If New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine signs the law as expected, one of the inmates whose life will be spared is Jesse Timmendequas, who killed 7-year-old Megan Kanka in 1994, a crime that spawned new laws across the nation to protect children from sex offenders.

The Garden State's elected leaders have decided it's more virtuous to let Timmendequas live - albeit behind bars - than to keep alive the flawed system that would have put him to death.

Too often in Alabama, we see the flip side. We're so zealous about dishing out the harshest punishment and about preserving our death apparatus that we don't even want to take time out to fix it. Year after year, bills to establish a moratorium on executions die in our Legislature.

That's to our collective shame.

Even a perfect system of capital punishment is fallible as long as humans are calling the shots. Alabama's is far, far from perfect.

At the very least, the state needs to take a breather on executions and fix the most obvious flaws. With executions for all practical purposes on hold while the U.S. Supreme Court decides on the constitutionality of lethal injection procedures, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley even has a window of opportunity to do the right thing without much of a backlash.

If New Jersey can abolish its death penalty outright, surely Alabama can give its busy death chamber a break.

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