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Execution machine switched off

November 9, 2007 | Page 2

THE MACHINERY of death in the U.S. has been halted.

On October 30, the U.S. Supreme Court stopped an execution in Mississippi minutes before it was due to take place--on the grounds that the justices are considering a different case in which the constitutionality of the use of lethal injection to kill condemned prisoners is at stake.

Opponents of the death penalty have held their breath with each approaching execution after the Supreme Court said it would hear the lethal injection appeal. State officials and lower court judges continued to sign off on planned executions--in effect, a challenge to the legal tradition of delaying related decisions until the Supreme Court sets a precedent on a case it has taken up.

But last week's stay is one of several, indicating that a majority of Supreme Court justices are pretty certain to stop anyone from being put to death until they rule on the lethal injection issue in a Kentucky case, Baze v. Rees.

The justices will hear arguments in the case in January, and a decision won't be announced until the spring. Until then, there will be a de facto moratorium on executions in the U.S.

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THE HALT on executions underscores the shift in the politics of the death penalty since the late 1990s, when the number of people put to death in the U.S. each year hit a high point. For the current Supreme Court--packed with right-wing justices appointed by Republican presidents--to stop executions, even temporarily, while it decides the Kentucky case, shows just how discredited the death penalty system has become.

A majority of people favor capital punishment when asked in opinion polls, but that support drops when they are given the option of lesser sentences, and an equally large majority wants a moratorium on executions until the many flaws that have been revealed about the death penalty system are investigated and addressed.

Even defenders of the death penalty admit their system is plagued by failures. The tide of men and women sentenced to death, only to be proven innocent and released, often after years behind bars, has continued. The most basic investigation shows how the system is stacked against the poor and people of color.

The immediate issue taken up by the Supreme Court--whether the technique of lethal injection amounts to "cruel and unusual punishment"--seemed technical to many opponents of the death penalty.

But the stories of death row prisoners who appeared to be conscious and in excruciating pain as the lethal cocktail of chemicals was pumped into their veins have given a shocking look at the usually shrouded execution business.

Like previous anecdotes about the electric chair setting its victims on fire, the issue of lethal injection has come to symbolize the arbitrary and barbaric nature of capital punishment--and serve as a lightning rod for further questioning about it.

The death penalty system is clearly in decline. The number of executions nationwide has fallen steadily, to nearly half the number of the peak year of 1999. The number of death sentences imposed by juries dropped to the lowest number since executions were legalized again in 1976. The Supreme Court itself has limited the use of the death penalty with bans on executing the mentally retarded and juvenile offenders.

Will the Supreme Court rule that lethal injection is "cruel and unusual punishment"--which would all but abolish the death penalty in the U.S.? That's possible, but by no means certain, given the core of very conservative justices on the court.

The Supreme Court could also set out new standards to make lethal injection more "humane," leading to executions restarting. But states would have to take more time to work out their procedures, extending the de facto moratorium for a time. Meanwhile, the debate before the court and in the media is bound to confirm growing doubts about the death penalty and reinforce the trend toward its disuse.

This effective halt to the execution machine is a vindication of the many people who have worked long and hard to oppose the death penalty.

Their efforts--whether inside or outside the courtroom--have exposed the ugly injustices of capital punishment in the U.S. Campaigns around specific cases--like the struggle that saved Kenneth Foster Jr. in Texas, the belly of the death penalty beast--have put a human face on this issue and contributed to the shift in climate.

There's no right way to do the wrong thing. The execution system should be abolished once and for all--and all those who care about justice need to show how the barbarism of the death penalty is reflected at every level of the criminal injustice system.

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