On the eve of Supreme Court arguments over lethal injection, Time magazine declares that “The death penalty in the U.S. is a wreck, but it’s our wreck–a collage of American attitudes, virtues and values.” Time says that any other government program that delivered 3 percent of what it promised–while costing millions of dollars more than the alternative–would be a scandal, but the death penalty is different. Most Americans back the idea of capital punishment–although fewer are for it if given a choice of life without parole. At the same time, a substantial number in a recent poll said they could not serve on a death-penalty jury.
The nation’s diversity on crime issues has produced the “staggering intricacy of death-penalty law,” as judges and legislators from coast to coast struggle to breathe meaning into such abstract issues as what constitutes effective counsel, what is the proper balance of authority between judge and jury, what makes a murder “especially heinous,” and what qualities and defects in a prisoner compel mercy. California’s death row houses more than 660 prisoners, but no one has been executed in nearly two years. Pennsylvania, with 226 inmates on death row, hasn’t carried out a sentence since the ’90s. In Florida spree killer William Elledge, who confessed and has openly discussed his guilt in interviews, will soon complete his 33rd year on death row with appeals unresolved. Every attempt to fix the death penalty bogs down in the same ambivalence. We add safeguards one day, then shortcut them the next.