October 3, 2007

The Death Sentence on Trial?

Support for capital punishment may be on the wane, as the Supreme Court ponders a Kentucky case that pivots on the question of whether lethal injections constitute “cruel and unusual punishment,” reports the Globe & Mail in Toronto.

In Texas, at least one inmate’s execution has been put on pending a decision in the case, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Lawyers there are predicting that judges will begin placing a moratorium on all executions until the case is heard this winter.

But Texas Governor Rick Perry wants the scheduled executions to move forward unabated.

Legal observers say the Supreme Court’s decision will have no bearing on whether the death penalty is humane or not.

Instead, it will focus on the chemicals used in lethal injection and whether there is a more painless way to kill a convict.

If there is, states would simply have to change their methods, though this would require the passage of new, state-level legislation — an uncertain prospect.

In spite of Gov. Perry’s inclinations, the number of executions performed in the U.S. has dropped to 53 in 2006, compared with 98 in 1999; the Globe & Mail reports that some states have imposed formal moratoriums on the death penalty, though ten have performed executions so far this year.

Opponents of the practice say it’s only a matter of time before the capital punishment ceases completely.

That would be a relief to the convicts on death row in Georgia.

A two-year investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reveals that the standard for prosecuting a killer in that state is entirely arbitrary and likely to be swayed by a victim’s race.

Of the 1,315 murder cases from 1995 through 2004 that could have merited the death penalty, prosecutors sought death only one-fourth of the time.

Many cases with nearly identical circumstances had completely different outcomes, and in some cases a lesser crime received the death penalty than a more heinous act.

The newspaper showed that the state’s district attorneys were more than twice as likely to seek the death penalty when the victim was white.

Sometimes, the decision to seek the death penalty is based on instinct more than anything.

“You know it when you see it,” one district attorney said.

Sources:

“Drip by drip, U.S. support for execution wanes”
Globe and Mail (Canada), September 28, 2007

“Death still arbitrary”
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, September 21, 2007

“Texas executions probably on hold until next year”
Houston Chronicle, September 29, 2007

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