THIS IS a grisly day. Five men are scheduled to be put to death in prisons across the country. That's the largest number of executions planned for a single day since capital punishment was resumed in 1976. Gerald Stano will walk to the electric chair in Florida for the murder of a 17-year-old girl in Daytona Beach. He has confessed to killing dozens of other women. William Mitchell will be executed in Georgia for the slaying of a grocery store clerk. And in Utah, Dale Pierre will die by lethal injection for three brutal murders committed in the course of a robbery. Two other men facing the death penalty today did not actually kill anyone. Wayne Ritter, who will die in Alabama, was an accessory to a pawnshop murder for which his partner, the triggerman, has already been executed. Beauford White will pay the penalty in Florida because he was a lookout at a drug-related slaying of six people.
These cases are no longer unusual. Eighty-seven people have been executed since 1976 and the pace is picking up. Four months ago, the Supreme Court rejected the last broad constitutional challenge to the death penalty, and as expected, states have begun to clear up the backlog on death row. Inmates have been put to death at a rate close to one a week. At the same time, the population awaiting execution -- now 1,900 -- is showing a net increase of five a week. Most of these sentences are imposed in the South. Since 1976, there have been only five executions outside that region and the sixth, Dale Pierre's in Utah, will be the first carried out without the consent of the condemned man.
These numbers may be interesting and certainly are disturbing, but they are irrelevant. Debate on the morality of capital punishment would be just as vital if only one murderer were put to death each year. There is no explaining or defending what most of these criminals did; there are only degrees of horror. There is little use in estimating the deterrent effect of the sentence or discussing the cost implications of long prison terms. The essential question is whether this country, unlike any other industrialized democracy on earth, is willing to "solve" social problems by killing human beings. Today is a good day to think about that.