Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Knocking on death row's door

As the U.S. Supreme Court weighs the latest challenge to the constitutionality of the death penalty, specifically the administration of lethal injections, one thing is clear: for death row inmates, there is no way to die - by hanging, firing squad, electrocution, lethal injection - that is not "cruel and unusual," as proscribed by the Constitution.

Rest assured, so long as states utilize the death penalty - and 36 of them do - convicted killers will legally fight whichever method is employed.

That battle was revisited on Monday in Washington with arguments in a Kentucky case, yet the inmates' advocates appeared to generate little sympathy among the justices, news reports say.

So, this case will likely do little to cause the Supreme Court to change the legal status of capital punishment. But in handing down its ruling, the high court can dispel some lingering and troubling aspects of lethal injections that were addressed in Florida last year after objections raised in Marion County by former Judge Carven Angel.

Angel heard a challenge brought by Ian Deco Lightbourne, convicted in the 1981 slaying of horsewoman Nancy O'Farrell, after the state wanted a thorough investigation of its lethal injection procedures. Former Gov. Jeb Bush initiated that review after the fatal concoction administered to inmate Angel Diaz took 34 minutes to end his life, about twice the usual time.

Angel ultimately decided that Diaz's execution was not botched, as death penalty opponents maintained, and that his death was "painless and humane."

Despite his findings, though, Angel was a catalyst for changes in Florida's death penalty regulations, helping bring some much-needed transparency to the process, which the U.S. Supreme Court should pass along to the rest of the country.

Dissatisfied with the state's initial changes following the Diaz controversy, the judge wanted procedures "consistent with evolving notions of the decency of man."

He pushed the state to spell out precisely the training, experience and minimum qualifications of each person involved with the execution team; to have the Department of Corrections secretary provide a warden with a list of qualified people to carry out the sentence; to grant the execution team the authority to speak out about problems and stop the execution, if necessary; and to force the DOC to certify that its equipment works properly, and that the team is qualified to handle the execution.

The DOC largely complied, rewriting its protocols to add criteria for selecting execution team members and training requirements, including that certain members must be state-certified medical professionals, such as doctors, nurses and paramedics. The state's revised version also mandated reviewing death penalty procedures at least once every two years.

Death penalty states have fought changes on the grounds that more clarity and public scrutiny would compromise prison security and the safety of personnel. Perhaps. We will concede, however, that there is little value in specifically identifying the executioner.

Still, it is difficult to see the harm in telling states to reveal the training, qualifications and duties of each execution team member, and what steps they take during the process. Moreover, the public should know what drugs are used in lethal injections and in what dosages.

The Los Angeles Times reported on Monday that in the aforementioned Kentucky case now before the nation's high court five veterinarians filed court papers saying the amount of pain killer in the three-drug lethal cocktail given to death row inmates there did not meet the state's minimum standards for humanely euthanizing animals.

Death penalty proponents often express apathy or open hostility at such complaints, suggesting that killers showed little concern for the suffering of their victims and are undeserving of mercy. We heard it here in the Lightbourne case and understand such sentiments.

Yet when the government takes human life, it does so in the name of all its citizens. And as long as the death penalty remains the law of the land, and it will be such for the foreseeable future, we have a duty to ensure that we remain "consistent with evolving notions of the decency of man," as Judge Angel wrote. Whatever their crimes, we ought to be able to put them to death with more regard than we would a dog.

No comments: