The U.S. Supreme Court stopped the execution of Virginia death row inmate Christopher Scott Emmett yesterday, a move that legal experts said might signal a nationwide halt to lethal injections until the justices decide next year whether the procedure amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
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As I've written previously, the recent number of stays of executions will probably only amount to a short pause in the execution process. The states and the federal government will have to revamp their execution protocols. Given the composition of the Court and the fact that the issue before them is limited to the method of execution, it is highly unlikely that the death penalty itself will be declared cruel and unusual.
But even this potential brief moratorium seems to much for those who love the death penalty. Kent Scheidegger, legal director and general counsel for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, states his belief in the deterrent effect of capital punishment. People like Mr. Scheidegger appear to be either uninformed about the research on deterrence or refuse to believe that the research suggests that capital punishment is no more or no less of an effective deterrent than is life in prison. The latter is also less expensive and is reversible in the event of a wrongful conviction. The rhetoric that innocent people will be killed if the death penalty is halted is full of irony given the number of death row exonerations.
Those of us who want rational sentencing policies must rebut the rhetoric of the ideologues at every turn. The tide against the death penalty is slowing beginning to turn, so perhaps Justice Marshall was correct after all - better information may eventually trump ideology.