The burden of executions

The fact that a convicted criminal asks to be executed does not relieve American society of the burden of decision. This was recognized by lawyers and authorities who forced the State of Virginia to proceed all the way to Chief Justice Burger for clearance to electrocute Frank Coppola this week. The condemned man himself had called for no more appeals on his behalf. Mr. Burger's go-ahead should not make the burden of decision any easier in the states where some one thousand other prisoners remain under sentence of death. Suppose all of them were executed on the same day or en masse as in those official killings by authoritarian governments that have so repelled American public opinion. Should taking their lives one by one be any more palatable in a land where cruel and unusual punishment is outlawed? According to a Justice Department official, the situation is ripe for the nation to witness executions at the 1930s rate -- approaching three a week. Is this what today's America really wants? It seemed to have been steered away from such barbarism by a 1972 Supreme Court ruling invalidating the nation's then existing capital punishment laws. But since then various states have sought to frame acceptable statutes and imposed sentences accordingly. They are departing from a world trend toward cutting back the number of offenses punishable by death. Some 20 countries, from West Germany to Venezuela, have abolished executions entirely. The arguments for the death penalty continue: deterrence of crime, protection from murderous criminals, unmistakable notice that some acts are totally beyond the pale. Yet the Supreme Court found that a deterrent effect had not been proved by statistical attempts to evaluate it. Dangerous offenders can be incarcerated to protect society from them without foreclosing that possibility of regeneration which belongs to every human being. And society is in a poor position to serve notice that it places the act of killing, for example, beyond the pale if it is willing to accept killing by the government itself.When those facing the burden of decision reject the execution option, they are not condoning the crimes of the criminal. They are helping society exemplify the respect for life it seeks to foster in all its citizens.

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