Cruel, unusual and in decline

Posted
Sunday, December 24
With the holidays upon us, and the year coming to an end, it is heartening to find that imposition of the death penalty declined dramatically in the United States in 2006. It is not reasonable to believe that this barbaric practice, which is far from foolproof and doesn't make society any safer, will continue to fade into disuse in 2007.

According to the year-end report of the Death Penalty Information Center, the annual number of death sentences is at a 30-year low and the number of injections has dropped to the fewest in a decade. For the first time in two decades, the Gallup Poll revealed that more Americans support life without parole than the death penalty for murder convictions. New Jersey joined a growing list of states to declare moratoriums on the death penalty while study commissions review its fairness and accuracy, and New York lawmakers voted against reinstating the state's defunct death penalty. The tide has turned against the death penalty, and we hope for good.

Americans and their elected officials are appalled by the knowledge, supplied by better DNA testing, that a significant number of innocent people have been sentenced to death. It is difficult to compensate someone for years served in jail for a crime he or she didn't commit, but it is impossible to return an innocent person from the grave. Americans and their elected officials are also sickened by the execution of the mentally ill. The American Bar Association has passed a resolution calling for an exemption from the death penalty for the severely mentally ill that should be heeded.

Evidence of the cruelty of the death penalty was provided in all its ugliness earlier this month, when Angel Diaz suffered for 34 minutes before he was finally executed in the state of Florida. Mr. Diaz was given a lethal injection that was supposed to kill him within 15 minutes but after the clock ticked past 30 minutes, during which Mr. Diaz appeared to be struggling to speak, he was given a second injection that finally killed him.

After this medieval exhibition, Florida Governor Jeb Bush suspended executions pending an investigation. On December 15, a U.S. District Court judge in California ruled that the injection procedures in that state are so brutal they violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger says he will address the court's concerns. Better he should push the Legislature to abandon the death penalty altogether

Massachusetts had a close call during the Cellucci administration when the Legislature came within one vote of enacting a death penalty. That was the closest the state has ever come, and we believe, ever will come, to making that terrible decision. Governor Romney floated what he described as a foolproof death penalty law, but this time the Legislature never even considered it and the death penalty appears dead in Massachusetts.

There are no statistics that back the assertion that the death penalty deters violent crime. There is, however, growing evidence that the death penalty is cruel, error-prone and stacked against minorities. Mr. Diaz was the 53rd and last person executed in the United States in 2006. He should be the last ever.


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