Sunday, May 4, 2008

Death or torture: just say "no"

Perhaps in deciding whether or not life in prison without parole (LWOP) violates the European Convention on Human Rights' ban on torture and other inhumane or degrading treatment, the European Court should ask Jack Harry Smith, the oldest death-row inmate in Texas, who says that
[d]eath is death...[but a] life sentence is a whole lot worse - it's torture. (Photo: Hope in a Prison of Despair)

Indeed, as Americans have begun to turn away from the death penalty for a variety of reasons (as indicated by last year's Death Penalty Information Center report, my post on it and my short article in the next (I think) Revue de science criminelle), all death-penalty states except New Mexico have instituted LWOP as an alternative to a death sentence. It is somewhat paradoxical, then, that the recent Supreme Court ruling in Baze v. Rees deciding that lethal injection of the 3-drug "cocktail" currently in use does NOT violate the 8th Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment has unleashed a flurry of activity aimed at clearing up the backlog that accumulated while states awaited the decision in Baze. In other words, states are now scrambling to schedule the executions they'd held off on. Among them will probably figure that of Smith, now 70, who claims he's innocent of the 1978 murder for which he was convicted. According to William Hubbarth of Justice for All, a victims rights group in Houston, the backlog of executions should be cleared "post haste," though he's careful to add that there's no "cheering section for the death penalty." For Hubbarth, the issue is not "killing the inmate," but "imposing the penalty that 12 of his peers have assessed." Ahhhh, if it were that simple, I doubt Justice Stevens would have suggested in his concurring opinion in Baze that it is time to reexamine the validity of the death penalty. While we're at it, perhaps we should take it from one who knows, like Jack Harry Smith, and ditch LWOP in favor of rehabilitation programs that work, like the Philippine dance program I've posted on. At the same time, we could take a look at the real cost of keeping people in prison and start investing seriously in schools to keep them out of prison to begin with.

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