January 4, 2008

The death machine: "One thoroughly screwed-up system"

Just in time for next Monday's U.S. Supreme Court hearing on a challenge to the three-drug cocktail used in most U.S. executions, Time magazine has issued a scathing denunciation of the state of capital punishment in the United States. This follows negative publicity in Newsweek magazine a couple of months ago (see my blog post of Nov. 25, 2007). Perhaps wind is on my mind due to the incredible windstorm we're having here in the San Francisco Bay Area today, but I'm sensing winds of change in the air.

Here are some tantalizing excerpts from the no-holds-barred Time piece:
In a perfect world, perhaps, the government wouldn't wait 30 years and several hundred executions to determine whether an execution method makes sense....

Any other government program that delivered 3% of what it promised -- while costing millions of dollars more than the alternative -- would be a scandal, but the death penalty is different. In its ambiguity, complexity and excess, the system expresses a lot about who we are as a nation....

Our death penalty's continued existence, countering the trend of the rest of the developed world, expresses our revulsion to violent crime and our belief in personal accountability. The endless and expensive appeals reflect our scrupulous belief in consistency and individual justice….

We add safeguards one day, then shortcut them the next. One government budget contains millions of dollars for prosecutions, while another department spends more millions to defend against them. Indeed, the very essence of ambiguity is our vain search for a bloodless, odorless, motionless, painless, foolproof mode of killing healthy people….

We now have a situation in which a majority of the states that authorize the death penalty seldom if ever use it. Last year only 10 states carried out an execution. And even that number overstates the vigor of the system. If you don't count executions of inmates who voluntarily dropped their appeals and asked to be killed -- essentially government-assisted suicides -- the state count falls to eight….

The ungainly, ambivalent collapse of the death penalty seems unfitting for a punishment whose very existence is largely symbolic. But the trend is unmistakable.

The Supreme Court is part of this slow-motion shutdown of the death-penalty machine. In recent years the court has banned executions of mentally retarded inmates and of prisoners who committed their crimes as minors. The mere fact that the court is hearing the lethal-injection cases is historic because the institution has always been reluctant to inquire into the business end of the death penalty….

The discussion itself is another sign of the nation's ambivalence about the ultimate, irreversible punishment. And as long as we're ambivalent, we'll continue to have the system we have made for ourselves--inefficient, beyond repair and increasingly empty.
Hat tip to Sentencing Law & Policy for alerting me to this article.