Friday, September 28, 2007

The Needle

The Supreme Court's decision this week to enter into the debate concerning the constitutionality of lethal injection is sure to be a touchstone decision when it is announced this spring. It's been noted that this is the first time the court has addressed the constitutionality of a method of execution since 1878, when it upheld the use of firing squads.

Even though the decision is several months away, that at least four justices feel the issue is worthy of consideration (the case is Baze v. Rees, 07-5439) is having an immediate impact on those 38 states with a death penalty statute, and in particular, the southern states which actively apply said statutes.

Last night the court issued a last-minute reprieve for an execution scheduled in the state of Texas, which rarely happens (it takes five justices to stop an execution). Earlier in the day, the Governor of Alabama postponed an execution so that the state could figure out if its lethal injection protocols were medically sound, and executions have also been called off in neighboring Tennessee.

All of this comes at a time that the Atlanta-Journal Constitution is concluding an expose on Georgia's death penalty process, painting the process as extremely capricious and haphazard, discriminatory and essentially unconstitutional. Not surprisingly, they call for the death penalty to be abolished.

We'll discuss both the pros and cons of the death penalty from a cursory standpoint in 3810 and in-depth in 3150 (next semester). But these latest developments are intriguing, to say the least.

After years of green-lighting executions at both the state and national levels, the fact that so many courts are now wrestling with the death penalty's constitutionality yet again, including our highest court, suggests there could be major changes afoot in how (or whether) we apply the ultimate punishment in this country.

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