Death takes a holiday
But the question is whether executions will take a permanent vacation in the United States.
Something didn’t happen in October that you may not have noticed not happening. For the first time in three years, no one in the United States was executed by the state. Confronted by mounting evidence that “improvements” in the process of state-administered homicide may not be as merciful to the condemned as advertised, the U.S. Supreme Court gave notice to America’s judiciary that it intended to review the process.
With defense challenges to lethal injection procedures piling up in courtrooms around the nation, the Supreme Court had little choice but to step in on death while it seeks to clarify America’s juridical death dealing. All the same, “I will not execute anybody” does make a nice national resolution for the New Year. The court is likely to hand down its decision sometime this spring.
Twenty states and the federal government officially have halted any further executions for the time being. Other states are likely to follow suit, even those that have shown enthusiasm for executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Twelve states and the District of Columbia already do not permit the death penalty at all. New Jersey and Illinois have declared moratoriums on capital punishment, and a 2004 New York Supreme Court decision struck down the death penalty in that state.
The last time the death penalty was shut down across the nation was 1972, when the Furman Decision objected to the period’s capricious and arbitrary enforcement of capital punishment. Today with just Texas, Virginia, and Oklahoma responsible for almost half of all executions since reinstatement (the Lone Star State leads with 403 executions), it’s hard to argue the capriciousness problem has been resolved. But the current threat to capital punishment is based more on procedural than constitutional grounds, suggesting that the most likely outcome of the current court’s deliberation is a new and revised process for administering lethal injections.
That’s unfortunate because the court-ordered timeout on the death penalty comes at a time when the viability of capital punishment in the United States has entered a period of great flux and uncertainty. The public’s appetite for capital sentences, in fact, appears to have declined sharply. In 1997 a Gallup poll reported that more than twice as many Americans, 61 percent to 29 percent, thought the death penalty was a more appropriate response to homicide than life without parole. Now 48 percent favor life in prison over the 47 percent who still support capital punishment.
Capital punishment has similarly come under growing global scrutiny. In November the U.N. General Assembly endorsed a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty. Of 192 member states, 130 have already abolished the death penalty. While capital punishment persists on the books in many typically developing countries, the vast majority of executions take place in just a handful of nations. The United States, as a result, is in poor company when it comes to the death penalty. In 2006, 91 percent of all known executions took place in just six countries: China, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Sudan, and the United States.
The church has had an uneasy relationship with capital punishment, but the most recent changes to the Catholic Catechism essentially declare the death penalty morally unacceptable in societies with enough resources to support alternative means to protect the public from violent offenders.
The slow grind down to zero executions parallels the terminal process the death penalty endured in the late 1960s until 1972. Back then growing doubts about the fairness of capital cases and the likelihood of racial discrimination propelled what turned out to be a short-lived rejection of the death penalty.
Today public disquiet with capital punishment has grown following the parade of condemned men liberated from death row after exonerations based on new DNA evidence or recanted testimony. And perhaps now Americans may be spiritually mature enough to simply pronounce capital punishment—a morally repugnant part of the national culture of death—finally DOA.
Kevin Clarke is senior editor at U.S. Catholic and online content manager at Claretian Publications. This article appeared in the January 2008 (Volume 73, Number 1; page 46) issue of U.S. Catholic.