This seems to be an opportune moment to reconsider the death penalty. By giving last-minute stays to executions in Mississippi and Texas, the Supreme Court has effectively brought about a moratorium on all executions until next spring. At question is the accepted method of administering lethal injections, a method adopted by 37 of the 38 states that allow the death penalty. It's unlikely that the ultra-conservative Roberts court will overturn lethal injection altogether. What's in doubt is a single injection, the second of three that the condemned receives. The first injection is an anesthesia to put the person to sleep, the second paralyzes his lungs, inducing suffocation, while the third stops the heart. The issue is whether the condemned is suffering intense pain but cannot express it because he is paralyzed. (At the very least, this horrific prospect removes the comfortable assumption that lethal injection is basically a mild surgical procedure, the equivalent of having your appendix out.)
If the court finds that the second injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, there's little doubt that the states will resort to a new, improved method. But the larger issue is why America stubbornly remains faithful to punishment by death. We find ourselves aligned with a host of African and Caribbean nations and Arab states like Syria and Saudi Arabia but no other developed country in Europe. Even Russia recently condemned a serial killer responsible for 24 murders to life imprisonment. In part this country's refusal to eliminate the death penalty belongs to a long tradition of ignoring judicial trends around the world. We go our own way for no better reason than that it is our own way -- opposition to gun control is another glaring example.
But the major reason, I think, is an acceptance that the public's demand for revenge is moral. Polls consistently reveal that the public wants the death penalty. There was a moratorium during the Seventies that didn't stick. Outrage over high crime rates couldn't be ignored, and the states soon began to move to the right (guns and Old Testament revenge are big on the right). The same eye-for-an-eye constituency goes to church and hears about Christian forgiveness but remains oblivious to the self-contradictions in their personal morality. Then there's the shameful assumption, unspoken but very real, that because blacks, the poor, and the wretched of the earth are condemned to death far more often that the white, educated, and privileged, their lives are somehow less valuable.
It has been largely conceded that prison time is ineffective as a form of rehabilitation. This failure somehow leads people to believe that vengeance is the best alternative. But putting someone to death costs millions of dollars in protracted court appeals -- far more than life behind bars -- and there is a saner, more rational purpose behind life imprisonment. It keeps killers away from society. Removing a felon from the streets is completely justified morally, and it accomplishes everything that the death penalty does except blood-for-blood.
It's been decades since the moral argument for abolishing the death penalty has had much sway. Even the fact that numerous death-row inmates have been found innocent through DNA evidence doesn't exert much influence. In the end, it may come down to money. A news story appeared last week about one state, Georgia, that can no longer afford to pay the millions needed to defend someone condemned to death. An Atlanta judge has ruled that unless the condemned man's defense lawyers are paid -- and adequately paid -- his execution cannot go forward. In the ensuing furor, the judge was accused of secretly trying to abolish Georgia's death penalty, using unpaid bills as a stalking horse. True or not, if any rationale can be found for abolishing a useless and barbaric practice that has no deterrent effect whatever, it will be welcome.