Saturday, April 19, 2008

The death penalty question

Justices skirt injustice of capital punishment

Is it time to kill the death penalty?

This question, buried in a 97-page U.S. Supreme Court opinion that examines, in gruesome detail, the practice of lethal injection, doesn't get much attention from state legislatures or federal lawmakers.

Support for the death penalty has become so knee-jerk that it's rare to find a candidate for any public office in Florida willing to voice opposition to capital punishment. As Justice John Paul Stevens noted, actions to retain the death penalty seem to have become "the product of habit and inattention rather than an acceptable deliberative process that weighs the costs and risks of administering that penalty against its identifiable benefits and rest in part on a faulty assumption about the retributive force of the death penalty."

Where is that debate? Where is the proof that the death penalty actually provides real deterrence to crimes of violence, or that it is fairly administered? Where is the justification for continuing a practice so outdated that the rest of the industrialized world has already turned away from it?

When jurisdictions actually ask these tough questions, they sometimes reach surprising conclusions. New Jersey officials set out to study the specific practice of lethal injection in 2005. The evidence they uncovered so disturbed them that state officials convened an exhaustive look at the death penalty in 2006. That commission found gross inequities in the way the penalty was applied and seriously undermined arguments that it helped lower the murder rate. In 2007, New Jersey abolished capital punishment.

But as the Supreme Court made clear Wednesday, it wasn't being asked to adjudicate the fairness or rationality of the death penalty. Instead, the court was ruling on a narrowly constructed challenge to Kentucky's method of execution: the same three-drug cocktail used in more than 30 other states, including Florida.

Lawyers for two condemned men argued that, as applied, the three-drug protocol had a high potential for error, causing a slow, agonizing death rather than the intended quick and painless demise. Their contention is supported by ample evidence of lethal injection gone wrong, including one horrific Florida case where intravenous needles were pushed through an executed man's veins, sending chemicals flooding into the tissue of his arms and creating foot-long burns.

Kentucky officials were able to convince seven members of the court that their protocol -- which includes an anesthetic to cause unconsciousness, a paralytic to keep the prisoner from convulsing and a drug that stops the heart -- had sufficient safeguards to prevent a nightmare scenario.

But that majority isn't as overwhelming as it seems. The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, was supported by just two other justices. Four others -- including Stevens -- expressed their concurrences with separate opinions, in which they agreed to uphold Kentucky's law. And at least two of those concurring justices -- Stevens and Stephen Breyer -- expressed serious reservations about the practice of capital punishment in the United States. (Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and David Souter dissented.)

With the nation's highest court so divided, state leaders should take another look at the practice of court-ordered killings. Not just the mechanics of capital punishment -- but its effectiveness and morality. The methods may be modern, but the evidence hasn't changed -- and that evidence speaks eloquently in favor of abolition.

Local death row convictions

There are 387 men and one woman on Florida's death row; 15 of those condemned inmates were convicted in Volusia County and two in Flagler:

Inmate; county; sentenced

Paul Brown; Volusia; April 2000

Roger Cherry; Volusia; Sept. 1987

Richard England; Volusia; July 2004

Anthony Farina; Volusia; Dec. 1992

Kosta Fotopoulos; Volusia; Nov. 1990

Louis Gaskin; Flagler; June 1990

James Guzman; Volusia; Dec. 2006

Ted Herring; Volusia; March 1982

James Hunter; Volusia; Aug. 1993

Jerone Hunter; Volusia; Sept. 2006

Ray Jackson; Volusia; June 2007

Kenneth Quince; Volusia; Oct. 1980

Bobby Raleigh; Volusia; Feb. 1996

David Snelgrove; Flagler; June 2002

Roy Swafford; Volusia; Nov. 1985

Peter Ventura; Volusia; Jan. 1988

Troy Victorino; Volusia; Sept. 2006

Florida Department of Corrections

No comments: