Regardless of one's position on the death penalty, last Tuesday's performance by the U.S. Supreme Court in vacating the stay of Frank Coppola's execution was deeply troubling.
In its other capital punishment cases, the court has repeatedly warned that because death is different from any other punishment, the utmost care and caution should be given in each case before an individual's life is extinguished.
However, the court ignored its own teachings in allowing the execution of Coppola Tuesday night. Without even hearing from both sides, it overruled the decision of a federal appellate judge, who had halted the execution to allow more careful consideration of several important issues.
From the day of his arrest for murder until the last day of his life, Frank Coppola asserted that he was innocent. Yet he still desired to die.
An attorney who had represented him for four years intervened on his behalf and alleged that Coppola's decision was the product of the oppressive and dehumanizing prison conditions on death row that had the effect of subordinating his free will to suicidal and irrational thoughts. Furthermore, the constitutionality of the Virginia statute under which he faced the electric chair was still unresolved in the federal courts.
These are difficult and important questions that deserved careful attention by the courts. Before our government becomes a partner in suicide, it is not unreasonable to be sure that the statute upon which the execution is based is legally valid and that the individual who decides to die is mentally capable of making the decision.
When Judge John D. Butzner of the U.S. Court of Appeals issued an order Tuesday afternoon halting the execution, he recognized that it was necessary to decide those questions in a calm and orderly setting where the issues could be fairly presented and considered in depth.
But the Supreme Court would have none of that. Without even waiting to read the papers filed in opposition to Virginia's request to have Coppola put to death and without time to consider fully the complex and lengthy record in the lower courts, the Supreme Court vacated Judge Butzner's order.
The Supreme Court often takes a year or longer to decide questions far less important than whether a man lives or dies at the hand of the state. But last Tuesday, the normal procedures were abandoned in the haste to execute Coppola.
Only one justice called for legal pleadings from lawyers seeking to stop the state-assisted suicide. (Two other justices voted to maintain the stay of execution.) Once the court's order was issued, a handwritten plea was delivered to the court at the last minute asking it to delay the execution to at least consider the papers opposing the electrocution. But Frank Coppola was killed by the State of Virginia before the court even ruled on the request.
That, of course, is the problem of such haste when the ultimate penalty of death is imposed. If the Virginia statute is found to be unconstitutional, the consequences of Tuesday's execution are irreversible for Frank Coppola. And we will never have fully explored the extent to which the conditions on Virginia's death row -- one of the most isolated, restrictive and inhumane institutions in the land -- created such a state of hopelessness that a man who asserted he was innocent would choose to die.
Even more disturbing is the fact that the Supreme Court, its justices conferring by telephone with so little time and information, would sanction Virginia's request to avoid these questions by electrocuting a human being. A decision of such magnitude should have been made in the dispassionate arena of the law -- not in an unseemly rush to death.