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Lethal Injection Debate

01/14/08 7:55AM By Bill Schubart
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(HOST) Commentator Bill Schubart usually writes about life in Vermont from his home in Hinesburg, but lately he's been following the Supreme Court's debate on lethal injection.

(SCHUBART) I have been listening to the Supreme Court's torturous deliberations regarding the concoction of toxic pharmaceuticals our society uses to kill criminals in the states that still believe the death penalty is a deterrent to crime and an exception to Judeo-Christianity's commandment not to kill.

During the High Court's digression on the second drug, pancuronium bromide's role, I began again to lose faith in our ability to inspire and lead the rest of the world. The debate focused on whether the paralyzing drug was injected to ensure that the person killed dies a "dignified death" or spares the execution team, the victim's family and witnesses the discomfort of seeing the visceral impact on the prisoner of the other lethal chemicals at work.

If executions are a deterrent to incipient offenders, we should conduct them on prime time TV and on town greens. We already round up alleged criminals and try them for the pleasure of TV viewers. If we did the same with executions, the High Court could then argue about lighting and cosmetics. But we execute in private. Could it be that we are either ambivalent or ashamed?

Most of the civilized world and most of its religions disapprove of the death penalty as a tool in the maintenance of civilized society. More and more Americans worried about the possibility of executing innocents agree with them. New Jersey has just ended the practice. Many states use it in law, but not in practice. Texas leads with 62% of all American executions. They believe in it.

The U.S. Supreme Court declared capital punishment "cruel and unusual" in the summer of 1972. By the millennium, 38 states had established local death penalty statutes. Vermont is one of 13 that remain in accord with the Supreme Court decision. Vermont's last execution was in 1954, and the death penalty was subsequently abolished here.

Decades of criminal data indicate clearly and scientifically that there's little nourishment for those who see it as a deterrent. Most criminal behavior that elicits the death penalty is spontaneous rather than planned out. Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno is on record as saying, "I have inquired for most of my adult life about studies that might show that the death penalty is a deterrent. And I have not seen any research that would substantiate that point."

The staggering damage wrought by corporate malfeasance on the scale of an Enron arguably leaves more socio-economic carrion in its wake than a spontaneous, testosterone-crazed gang murder; yet the white, wealthy malefactor will not be considered for the death penalty, while a non-white minor may well be.

The ethics of socially imposed death will be argued forever by spiritual and religious leaders, but those who support execution are a distinct minority. Most reserve the right to end human life to their respective Gods. Those states with the death penalty constitute a federal majority but a distinct minority in the world community.

You can find more commentaries by Bill Schubart at VPR-dot-net.
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