16 December 2006

Reprieves in Florida & California

Well, what if it only took 27 minutes for a condemned person to die of lethal injection? How about 19 minutes? Or 16? Officials in Florida are concerned (sort of) because of yet another botched execution in the state. So, the Governor has (what else?) appointed a commission to study the matter. You will recall that they've already had big problems in Florida with their earlier mode of execution - the electric chair. It seems that one condemned man took nearly 34 minutes to die after being injected with the lethal three drug cocktail . And a judge in California has placed a moratorium on further executions by lethal injection in that state pending a repair to the methods used. He is sort of concerned too. (As The Guardian reports: "The state has had a moratorium on executions since February. "Implementation of lethal injection is broken" in California, said US district judge Jeremy Fogel in his ruling. But he added: "It can be fixed."") You can read The New York Times report here.

Anti-death penalty activists are encouraged by these decisions. But this is really a rear guard action. There is little doubt that even if it does not violate the Constitution in principle, public execution is cruel and unusual (although too common) in practice. What method is used to kill someone may seem to be pretty far to the right of the decimal point. But if no method passes Constitutional muster then the practice is not allowable.

There is also plenty of evidence that systematic discrepancies exist in sentencing generally and in the imposition of the death penalty in particular. The occupants of death row are disproportionately poor, minority or both. Why do you suppose that might be? Meanwhile, Jeffrey Skilling, who ruined thousnads of people's lives is at a country club prison in Minnesota. Moreover if we insist, like the Supreme Court does, on looking not at aggregate patterns but only at individual cases, it is clear that there are many many cases where reasonable doubt exists as to whether the "right man" has been sentenced for the relevant crime. What is broken is the system of criminal justice. Can it be fixed?

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