The death penalty has become a fixture of American justice. More than 3,500 people are on death row around the country. The pace of executions has steadily picked up over the decade, from a low of 14 in 1991 to 83 so far this year.
But use of the most severe sanction is not without controversy. Opponents rightly question its moral soundness and the uneven way it is applied. A small number of states, led by Texas, account for the bulk of executions. A fresh round of debate was touched off by passage, in 1996, of a federal law that restricts a condemned person's ability to file habeas corpus appeals.
The best way to resolve the controversy would be to put this form of punishment on the shelf of history, as most other modern democracies have. State-sanctioned killing is at odds with the need to reduce the level of violence in society. Its value as a deterrent is, at best, questionable. And it is irreversible should evidence of innocence later emerge.
But capital punishment is as politically secure as it is philosophically and morally shaky. Backing it has become a "tough on crime" litmus test for Democrats and Republicans alike. Until such time as Americans are ready to seriously reconsider its use, the death penalty should at least be diligently scrutinized as problems in its application come to light.
Responsibility for that task falls, ultimately, on the Supreme Court. The court has agreed to review four death penalty cases. One case examines whether the electric chair is so violent a method of execution that it violates the Constitution's ban against "cruel and unusual punishment." The others focus on the 1996 law's limitations on appeals.
The current Supreme Court isn't likely to back away from earlier rulings affirming the constitutionality of capital punishment. But the court can, and should, help assure the humaneness of its application and allow those facing execution opportunity to raise legitimate questions about legal processes.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society