The death penalty debate: after a seven-month break, executions have resumed in the U.S.--and so has the debate over capital punishment itself.

Author:Blumenthal, Ralph


Two days before Christmas in 1988, William Lynd shot his 26-year-old girlfriend, Ginger Moore, in the face during an argument. He shot her a second time as she clung to life, and then a third time, fatally, as she struggled in the trunk of his car. After burying Moore near a farm in southern Georgia, Lynd, then 33, killed another woman who had stopped along the road to help him.

Twenty years later, on May 6, Lynd was put to death by lethal injection for his crimes. It was the first execution in the United States in seven months, and came just three weeks after the Supreme Court ruled that execution by lethal injection--the most common method today--did not violate the Constitution's Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. (A de facto moratorium on executions had been in effect while the Court considered the case, Baze v. Rees, a challenge to Kentucky's use of lethal injection.)

The 7-to-2 decision in Baze cleared the way for states and the federal government to resume executions, and as of mid-July, at least 12 men had been executed in seven states.

And now that executions have resumed, so has the long-running debate over capital punishment: Should the government put people to death? Does the death penalty deter future crime? Does it discriminate against minorities? What about the possibility of mistakenly executing innocent people? Why do so few industrialized democracies, aside from the U.S., still have the death penalty? (Eighty-six countries have abolished it, including most of Europe, and many other countries that have it on the books don't actually use it.)


"When people confront a new wave of executions, they'll be questioning not only how people are executed but whether people should be executed," says James R. Acker, a criminal justice professor at the State University at Albany in New York.

This re-examination comes as the number of executions in the U.S. is falling and as the Supreme Court has limited the use of the death penalty in recent years.

Death-penalty advocates welcome the resumption of executions. "The capital murderers set to be executed should be executed post-haste," says William R. Hubbarth of Justice for All, a victims-fights group based in Houston. "It's not about killing the inmate. It's about imposing the penalty that 12 of his peers have assessed."

The morality and value of capital punishment have been debated for thousands of years. Many death-penalty supporters interpret the biblical phrase "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" to mean that those who commit murder should meet the same fate, as retribution or as a deterrent to other would-be killers. Opponents say killing is wrong no...

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