It’s good, maybe, that some states are looking for alternatives to death by lethal injection in their criminal justice systems, but they are looking in the wrong direction. Instead of stepping back into the era of firing squads, electrocutions and hangings, they should be looking to a future in which they forgo the death penalty in favor of life in prison.
This is not a plea to be nice to murderers and sociopaths. There are crimes that are so terrible that death would be an appropriate penalty. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev comes immediately to mind. If he is, indeed, guilty of last year’s Boston Marathon bombing, then the loss of his own life would not be an inappropriate penalty – but for one overriding and inescapable fact: The system doesn’t work, won’t work and can’t work – not reliably enough to ensure that innocent people aren’t sent to their deaths. It’s the reason that Washington and the states that still impose the death penalty must look beyond it to account for the horrifying risks of error.
Several states, including Missouri, Wyoming and Virginia, are looking to alternatives to lethal injection, given the increasing difficulty of obtaining the necessary drugs and questions over the humaneness of lethal injection. Only a few weeks ago in Ohio, Dennis McGuire took 26 minutes to die by injection, gasping repeatedly. On Jan. 9 in Oklahoma, Michael Lee Wilson’s final words were, “I feel my whole body burning.”
Those events raise serious issues, going straight to the constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments. While a return to the gruesomeness of firing squads or electric chairs might get around that problem, it evades the fundamental issues of fairness and certainty.
The facts are that poor people and minorities are more likely to be sentenced to death for the same crimes for which others draw lesser sentences. And, at least as troubling, the death penalty system has already been shown to be flawed.
Texas executed an innocent man, Carlos DeLuna, for a murder he did not commit. There surely have been others, in Texas and elsewhere, given the revelations in recent years of the numbers of wrongful convictions around the country, including New York and, specifically, including Buffalo. Innocent people went to prison; it’s strains credulity to believe that no other innocent people have ever been executed.
The need for retribution is great among humans and, properly channeled, it has its place. But we are not slaves to our urges and when the death penalty is shown to be unreliable, when it is shown to be unfairly applied, when its imposition allows for no correction, when other acceptable punishments are available, it is government’s responsibility to take notice and to act. Other forms of punishment will get the job done well enough, including life in prison without parole.
More and more states and countries have abandoned the death penalty and, thankfully, New York is among them. But many states cling to it like an infant to a blanket. They insist not just upon its importance, but its holiness. For the death penalty supporters in those states, we’ll pass along the unanswerable observation made several years ago by conservative columnist George Will: Capital punishment is a government program, so skepticism is in order.