Magazine article New York Times Upfront

The Death Penalty Debate: The United States Is One of the Few Industrialized Nations That Still Uses Capital Punishment. under Increasing Scrutiny by the Courts, It Continues to Stir Strong Feelings on Both Sides

Magazine article New York Times Upfront

The Death Penalty Debate: The United States Is One of the Few Industrialized Nations That Still Uses Capital Punishment. under Increasing Scrutiny by the Courts, It Continues to Stir Strong Feelings on Both Sides

Article excerpt

BACKGROUND

The U. S. is in the midst of a "national. reconsideration" of the death penalty, one expert says. Eight states have temporarily halted executions, and New Jersey is considering abolishing them altogether. Supporters say the death penalty is fitting for heinous crimes, white opponents consider it "cruel and unusual, punishment."

The Eighth Amendment: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruet and unusual punishments inflicted.

Last October, the state of Florida executed a 52-year-old serial killer and rapist named Danny Rolling. In 1990, Rolling brutally murdered five female college students in Gainesville--decapitating one of them and putting her head on a bookshelf--during a three-day rampage that shocked and terrorized the city.

As is typical whenever the death penalty is carried out in the United States, two groups gathered outside the prison as Rolling was put to death by lethal injection. Some came to show respect for Rolling's victims and their families, and to applaud that justice was finally being served. Others, equally heartfelt, denounced the execution itself as state-sponsored murder.

Ada Larson, the mother of one of Rolling's victims, said afterwards that the execution finally allowed her a measure of peace. "Our pain will never go away," she said, "but this evil man has gone away now."

Deborah Michaud, who had grown up with two of the victims and was outside Florida State Prison that day, saw things differently. "I feel really helpless," she told the Miami Herald, with tears in her eyes. "I don't know what I can do to stop executions, and I also don't know what I can do to stop violence. But I feel this is not the answer."

Larson and Michaud typify the long-running debate in the U.S. over the death penalty and the intense feelings that it stirs. The U.S. is one of the few industrialized nations that still uses capital punishment. Eighty-six countries have outlawed it, including all of Europe (except Belarus), and many others that allow it in theory do not use it.

FEWER EXECUTIONS

After years in which solid majorities of Americans supported capital punishment, a recent Gallup poll showed the nation about equally divided on the question when life without parole is offered as another option. Meanwhile, the number of executions each year in the U.S. has dropped by half since 1999, to 53 in 2006. The decrease has occurred as the death penalty has come under increasing attack on a variety of fronts.

Exonerations of death-row inmates, based on DNA and other evidence, have led to charges that the death penalty is too severe--and final--a punishment, given the possibility that innocent people could be executed. There have also been questions about whether current execution methods constitute "cruel and unusual punishment," which is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.

Last year, executions were at least temporarily halted in eight states--Florida, California, Maryland, Arkansas, Delaware, Missouri, Ohio, and South Dakota--over concerns that supposedly humane lethal injections might actually produce intense pain. And in January, a commission appointed by the New Jersey Legislature recommended that the state abolish the death penalty. The commission found "no compelling evidence" that capital punishment serves a legitimate purpose and increasing evidence that it "is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency."

'AN EYE FOR AN EYE'

"We're in a period of national reconsideration of the death penalty," says Austin D. Darat, a professor of political science and law at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

Debate over the death penalty is nothing new. Many supporters of capital punishment point to the Old Testament and its philosophy of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth": Those who commit murder should meet the same fate, as retribution, or as a deterrent to other would-be killers. …

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