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John Crisp: The death penalty -- abolish it or embrace it

John M. Crisp

Capital punishment is in the news.

Federal prosecutors have announced that they will seek the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the young perpetrators of last April's Boston Marathon bombing, which killed three people and injured more than 260.

Also, states that still permit capital punishment are having trouble finding the drugs that they customarily use to execute criminals. Their suppliers -- European countries that abolished capital punishment some time ago -- are reluctant to provide their products for purposes they disapprove.

As a result some states have executed criminals with novel combinations of drugs with sometimes unseemly results. In January, Dennis McGuire, condemned in Ohio for rape and murder, was executed with the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone, a mix never tried in the United States before.

Associated Press accounts report that McGuire took nearly 25 minutes to die and his final throes included long periods of irregular breathing and loud snorting.

No one knows what was going on in McGuire's sedated mind during his prolonged demise, but authorities don't seem overly concerned. Assistant Ohio Attorney General Thomas Madden says, with interesting logic, that the Constitution may ban cruel and unusual punishment, but "you're not entitled to a pain-free execution."

Other states that are having difficulties obtaining execution drugs are looking to the past. Last month Missouri state Rep. Rick Brattin proposed reinstituting the use of the firing squad, a method that he says will provide a solution for the drug shortage and will be the "most economical" for the state.

Another Missouri legislator and the state's attorney general have proposed renovating the state's gas chamber, and a Virginia lawmaker wants to bring back the electric chair.

I've never been a big fan of capital punishment, even though I live in Texas, our nation's leader in executions. In fact, my state's 510 executions since 1976 are about five times greater than the number in the next state, Virginia, and are crucial to the United States' standing, according to Amnesty International, as the nation with the fifth highest total, surpassed only by Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the current champion, China.

But I don't find the deterrence argument for capital punishment very convincing -- despite the threat of death, we still have plenty of murders in capital punishment states. And we've never been able to figure out how to apply the death penalty equitably across lines of race and class.

Most disturbing, though, is the death penalty's irrevocability. Last week the National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of the law schools at the University of Michigan and Northwestern, reported that 2013 was a record year for exonerations. Eighty-seven people who had been accused or convicted were cleared based on DNA or other evidence. Forty of the convictions were for homicide. Interestingly, Texas also led the nation in exonerations, with 13.

The unfortunate upshot is that as long as we practice capital punishment, we will, from time to time, execute innocent people; clearly, we have done so and, undoubtedly, we will in the future. A sentence of life without parole provides an opportunity, at least, to correct our mistakes.

Really, we should join the rest of the Western world and abolish the death penalty.

But failing that, since some states are already considering reinstating the firing squad and electric chair, we should probably take one further step back to public executions. The last one was a hanging in Kentucky in 1936, and at least 20,000 people showed up to watch.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev could be the first. We're probably not ready for a Saudi-esque beheading or an Iranian hanging. But I wouldn't be surprised by a strong local market and lucrative TV rights for a North Korean-style firing squad.

At the least, public executions would better test the theory of deterrence, as well as determine whether Americans really have the integrity to acknowledge and the stomach to confront the violence inherent in the death penalty.

John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune.


John M. Crisp
commentBy John M. Crisp