Dead End

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By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Write
Sunday, January 14, 2007

Gary Gilmore, patron saint of the modern American execution, hear our plea.

Give us potassium chloride, give us death, but give us two good grams of sodium thiopental first.

Give us the long drop, the 2,000-volt surge, the Cor-Bon 185-grain jacketed hollow-point .45, but let the country give up this quest for a painless execution.

Is it even possible? It has been the holy grail of executioners for more than a century, and we are still plodding along the capital punishment road, vast horizons ahead.

Lethal injections, once thought of as perfection revealed, are now on hold in Maryland, California, Florida, Missouri, South Dakota. Doctors say that, if improperly administered, they might cause the condemned to die in pain. Since this pain violates constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment, and since lethal injections are now the method of choice for almost all executions, opponents think they may have found the way to do away with capital punishment in America.

"I don't think we've changed morally, but we may be in that process" of abolishing the penalty, says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

"A pivotal moment in history," editorialized the Lancet, a medical journal that has played a key role in the latest attempts to outlaw lethal injection.

Is this it? Are we approaching the end?

Thirty years ago this week, Gary, is the anniversary of your execution, the one you worked so hard to bring about, the one that reintroduced the nation to the moral complexities of capital punishment after a decade's respite. Did you feel pain in that squalid Utah state prison room, strapped into an office chair in front of a grimy mattress, five rifles pointed toward the white circle over your heart?

The press reported your last public words:

"Let's do it."

Less known were your actual final words to a priest:


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