The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why haven’t we abolished the death penalty and moved on?

A view of the Supreme Court building. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
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In Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 powerful antiwar film, “Paths of Glory,” an injured and virtually unconscious French soldier, chosen at random to be executed, is slapped awake just as he is about to be shot. The movie was based on an actual World War I incident, although I can’t vouch for the firing-squad scene. I can vouch, however, for this week’s Supreme Court decision that will permit the execution of a 67-year-old man who has suffered from strokes and cannot remember his crime.

Of course, others can remember precisely what Vernon Madison did. Back in 1985, he killed a cop when the officer responded to a domestic dispute. This was in Mobile, Ala., and the state is now preparing to set a new execution date. If it is carried out, Madison will die 32 years after he committed his crime. All he knows, the court said in its opinion, is that “he will be put to death as punishment for the murder he was found to have committed.”

The death penalty has become one of those odd American anomalies, like the right to casually buy semiautomatic weapons. The rest of the advanced world has moved on and abolished capital punishment. As a nation, we now keep odious company — with China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, among others. The latter two have public executions which, if you believe that the death penalty is a deterrent, makes perfect sense. Trouble is, capital punishment is not a deterrent. In the first place, murder is often a spontaneous event, and where it is dispassionately planned, it is done so by people who do not believe they will be caught. Try telling a teenager not to drive fast. Those who do are oblivious to the consequences.

In truth, I have little sympathy for Madison. He killed a cop. But surely he did not plan the murder and, just as surely, awaiting execution for three decades has to be cruel –maybe not cruel and unusual, but certainly cruel. In a way, in fact, it’s typical. A drumbeat of Supreme Court rulings and changing public opinion have made the death penalty unusual in itself. Nineteen states have abolished it. Others hardly ever use it. In the Northeast, it is all but gone. In the South, particularly Texas and Florida, it remains robust. In time, that, too, will change.

It has gotten harder and harder to legally kill a person. Executions have become complicated affairs, sometimes hideously botched. Moreover, we have lost faith in the infallibility of the criminal-justice system. DNA has injected doubt. Since 1973, more than 155 people have been released from death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The law of averages and common sense tell us that, along the way, innocent people have been put to death.

It has become increasingly difficult for states or the federal government to apply the death penalty. But why even try? Nothing is accomplished, and while the chances of making a mistake are now diminished — DNA can prove guilt as well as innocence — life in prison is a worthy substitute. It shows that society appreciates what the loss of innocent life means — both to the victim and, more pertinently maybe, to the survivors. The grieving are surely owed our empathy, but capital punishment can neither right a wrong nor prevent another from happening.