'Evolving standards'

Published: Friday, January 5, 2007 at 9:47 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 5, 2007 at 9:47 a.m.

Florida conducts its executions with more dignity and dispatch than, say, the hanging of Saddam Hussein. But even a corrections establishment as practiced in the lethal arts as ours cannot guarantee deadly efficiency each and every time.

It took some grotesquely botched electrocutions to finally persuade Florida lawmakers to switch to lethal injection as the more "humane" way to end life.

But now a lethal injection execution has gone badly awry as well. And so the state has temporarily suspended killings until a special commission, whose members will include local Circuit Court Judge Stan Morris, can examine the execution procedures.

Presumably, the commission's goal will be to find a more "humane" series of steps by which to end a capital felon's life. Perhaps a kinder method of injection, or a gentler mix of lethal drugs.

We have a better idea. Panel members should instead follow the example of the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission. Made up of prosecutors, a police officer, representatives of murder victims and others, that commission has just concluded that the death penalty itself is "inconsistent with evolving standards of decency."

"Based on our findings, the commission recommends that the death penalty in New Jersey be abolished and replaced with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole to be served in a maximum security facility." It also recommended that "any cost savings resulting from the abolition of the death penalty be used for benefits and survivors of victims of homicides."

The "humane" capital punishment is a well-honed political fiction that is wearing increasingly more thin with each new badly executed execution. Even popular opinion polls that used to routinely come down solidly on the pro-death side are these days tending to be split between those who favor death and those who opt for life imprisonment.

"We are in a period of national reconsideration of the death penalty," Austin D. Sarat, political science professor at Amhurst College, told the New York Times this week. "I believe what's happening in New Jersey will have a tremendously galvanizing effect."

Capital punishment, in whatever form, promotes a culture of deadly revenge that truly does conflict with "evolving standards of decency." How long will Florida's political leaders insist on defending the indecency of state-sponsored revenge?

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