Alan Greenblatt is a GOVERNING correspondent.E-mail: email@example.com
There's a lot of speculation right now about whether the Supreme Court will rule that lethal injections -- by far the most common method of execution -- violate constitutional strictures against "cruel and unusual" punishment. The Court has blocked the execution of a Virginia inmate, pending its ruling on the constitutional question about lethal injections in a Kentucky case, leading to speculation that there will be a nationwide moratorium on the practice until the Court issues its ruling.
Death penalty opponents are hoping -- and death penalty supporters are nervous about -- a moratorium. Everyone knows the history in Europe. After years of moratoriums, politicians decided that they could go ahead and abolish a practice that was not in use anyway.
That is the strategy abolitionists intend to take here. Straight up abolition is tough, even in sympathetic states such as Maryland and New Jersey. But moratoriums are more doable and could lead, they believe, to abolition in the long run. Numerous courts have found that lethal injections are poorly administered and can inflict great pain, which has led to moratoriums in more than 10 states in the past year.
Death penalty opponents have changed tactics in recent years, attacking not the morality of execution but other issues surrounding them, such as questions of innocence and, most prominently now, methodology.
Only Nebraska, among the death penalty states, does not use lethal injection as its primary method of execution, thanks to a state senator who opposes the death penalty and hopes that the state Supreme Court will find electrocution unconstitutional, leaving the state without a method.
It's possible that the Supreme Court will leave other states (and the federal government) with the difficult task of finding a humane method of execution if they find that lethal injections are unconstitutional.
But this Court has been supportive overall of the death penalty. I wonder whether the justices have not taken the case in hopes of clearing up the lethal injection complaints once and for all, insuring that they can be used (if only, perhaps, in carefully limited circumstances).
Written and compiled by staff writers and editors, GOVERNING View is an on-the-ground, and sometimes behind-the-scenes, look at the topics we're covering in print and online. From notes on what's up in statehouses, county courthouses and city halls, to encounters with people, places and things, GOVERNING View is a window into the side of state and local government you don't always see.