Death Row is a place of excruciating order, relentless tedium. Days are measured in minutes, motion in inches. When turmoil erupts, it does so at the periphery. Usually. This week is an exception: Turmoil is inside and out, North, South, East and West.
Georgia is set to execute a man with an IQ of 70.
Oklahoma is scheduled to execute a man whose guilt is far from certain.
Massachusetts, where the death penalty was abolished 65 years ago, is being forced to empanel a federal court jury for the Boston Marathon Bombing case, limiting its members to persons not opposed to execution – a minority of the state’s population.
California, where the last execution took place nine years ago, continues to fill its inactive Death Row by issuing more death sentences than any other state. There are now 749 residents on Death Row.
Meanwhile, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear the brief of Death Row inmates in Oklahoma, arguing that the drug planned to sedate them will constitute torture. That the drug is the same used in the only other states that actually practice execution by lethal injection – Florida, Texas, Ohio and Missouri – puts all future executions by that mode into question.
It is impossible to avoid the question: Who is served by this chaos?
Is it the victims’ families? Not according to the mother of the child killed by the man Oklahoma executed last week. She wanted nothing to do with the killing. Not according to Bud Welch, father of a victim of Timothy McVeigh, who said it was more important for him to be able to forgive McVeigh than to kill him. Not according to the hundreds of members of the Forgiveness Project and Murder Victims Families For Human Rights who wash their hands of the process and argue that the death penalty prolongs and deepens their agony.
Is it the state? Not if budget is considered. A case that includes the death penalty option carries exponentially higher court costs (These vary from state to state, with the average being double the expense at the first trial and 10 times the expense through appeals).
Is it the local community? Not if deterrence is the goal. The death penalty has no impact on reducing violent crime or restoring civil order following a trauma.
Is it the federal government? Not if efficiency is the goal. The cost is greater, the effort more, the outcome predictably biased by race and class and the likelihood that the sentence will be carried out extremely low. Only three of the 74 people sentenced to death since 1988 have been executed.
Is it the nation? Not if international opinion matters. Most industrialized nations have abandoned execution as a form of punishment and consider the US bizarrely behind the times. In fact, the crisis about drugs for lethal injection began when pharmaceutical companies in Europe refused to provide drugs that will be used to kill.
Is it the American people? Not if squeamishness regarding method is a measure. Americans who tell Gallop pollsters they favor execution want it to be painless, clean, simple and distant. They choose lethal injection over earlier forms that troubled them – electrocution, hanging, burning at the stake, stoning, beheading and such.
That lethal injection is not all they hoped forces the question. In fact, when Gallop changes the question to, “If you could choose between these two approaches, life in prison without parole, or the death penalty,” support drops. To be sure, people who have performed heinous acts or constitute a threat to society should never be restored to freedom, but killing such criminals has proven counterproductive.
In 1972, when the Supreme Court instituted its moratorium in Furman v. Georgia, it did so stating that the death penalty, as practiced in the United States, was “arbitrary and capricious.” Data show it remains so. It is also now chaotic. It is time to stop pretending a value-centered democracy can execute its citizens in a way that honors national commitment to dignity for the individual, regardless of who the person is or what that person has done. The time for a national solution is now.