Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Case For Lethal Injection

The Tampa Tribune

Published: January 9, 2008

The Kentucky inmates challenging the state's three-drug lethal injection protocol believe it is unconstitutional because there is a possibility that if administered improperly, it could cause excruciating pain. Thus the men claim the procedure is a violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

They're not challenging the death penalty itself - the U.S. Supreme Court has said capital punishment is constitutional - but only the method. Nevertheless, their goal is clear: stopping executions in the United States.

So far they've been successful. Since the court agreed to take the case last year, after inmates in Florida and Ohio took much longer than usual to die, there has been a moratorium on executions.

But it looks like the justices aren't ready to say the 30-year-old lethal injection protocol, developed as a more humane alternative to the gas chamber and electric chair, is cruel and unusual.

Rather than ask the justices to spare their clients, the inmates' lawyers this week cleverly offered up another protocol: Increase the dosage of sodium thiopental, the barbiturate used in the three-drug cocktail to anesthetize the condemned, so it will kill the prisoner painlessly.

Surely no one called upon to administer the ultimate penalty desires to be cruel or inhumane. But if the court adopts a standard that says the method of execution must be one in which there is absolutely no risk of pain, then any procedure developed to kill will face endless challenges.

The justices, however, did not seem convinced the three-drug cocktail causes a painful death or that there is a more humane method available to carry out the sentence.

The use of the death penalty as punishment for the worst crimes is a legitimate issue for political debate, and there is wide concern about the morality of capital punishment. With lethal injection, states tried to soften the look of it, but opponents insist the death penalty is state-mandated murder in any form.

Supporters of capital punishment make rational and compelling arguments, too, including that many people sentenced to death are guilty of crimes so hideous that a prison sentence, however long, doesn't satisfy society's sense of justice.

Doubts about the death penalty tend to give way in the face of insanely brutal and horrific killings. At those times, the manner of execution matters less than the assurance that ruthless murderers pay the ultimate price for their crimes.

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