Monday, 14 January 2008

Let's take the time to get the right rules on executions


Published Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Let's take the time to get the right rules on executions

The U.S. Supreme Court's discomfort with the question of capital punishment was evident Monday as justices heard arguments over Kentucky's lethal injection procedure. The division on the court, moreover, seems to mirror the split in national opinions on t

Polls from last August show a decided majority of Americans - 62 percent - support capital punishment. However, that figure has declined significantly from a high of 80 percent favoring the death penalty in the mid-1990s.

Moreover, New Jersey last month became the first U.S. state in four decades to ban capital punishment.

Alabama isn't about to follow suit. However, citizens here are troubled by many aspects of the state's administration of capital punishment. At the very least, our leaders should take advantage of the Supreme Court's temporary halt on executions to consider questions about DNA testing, judicial override, adequate representation and other issues.

The court has suspended executions nationwide until it decides the Kentucky case, in which attorneys for inmates argued that the three-drug cocktail that states use for lethal injections violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Justice Antonin Scalia, predictably, doesn't want executions suspended much longer. Where in the Constitution, he asked, does it say that condemned inmates should suffer no pain when they are executed? Dismissing arguments that even veterinarians who euthanize dogs have long since abandoned the drugs used in lethal injections in favor of a more humane barbiturate overdose, Scalia groused that further consideration of the three-drug method would mean "a national cessation of executions" that could last for years. "You wouldn't want that to happen," he said.

Most of the country, thankfully, doesn't share Scalia's views on pain and suffering. That's why we don't execute our criminals by stoning, boiling or disemboweling. That's why most states have moved away from the electric chair, the firing squad, the gas chamber or the hangman's noose.

Lethal injection, which Alabama adopted in mid-2002, was billed as a humane alternative to other methods of execution. But lawyers argued before the Supreme Court on Monday that if anything goes awry in the process - and it has in several states - the result can put the condemned inmate in excruciating pain for the last few minutes of his or her life. And, to borrow a phrase from Scalia, we wouldn't want that to happen.

Justice David Souter urged his colleagues to take the time necessary to issue a definitive ruling.

Scalia to the contrary, Souter is absolutely correct. If the court ever needed to get anything right, it's the ruling on capital punishment.

The same applies to Alabama. As long as we allow capital punishment, we need to ensure that the process is as foolproof as possible. The many questions raised about it in this state need to be resolved.

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