Jacob Sullum

The search for kinder, gentler ways to kill people suggests many supporters of the death penalty have mixed feelings about it. They favor it in theory, but they don't want to confront the reality of it. Rather than a public hanging or decapitation, they prefer a hidden, sterilized, medicalized, mechanized approach.

I can sympathize. I've always supported the death penalty, but my doubts are growing for several reasons.

The possibility of executing innocent people, which is the sort of mistake you can't correct, understandably leads to elaborate procedural protections, which in turn make the legal process ridiculously slow. Clarence E. Hill, the Florida cop killer whose lethal injection challenge the Supreme Court allowed to continue, was convicted of murder 23 years ago.

Because the death penalty is so time-consuming and expensive to pursue, it's the exception rather than the rule for murderers. Over all, there is little rhyme or reason to decisions about which ones will be executed.

More fundamentally, I wonder if we're dodging the central issue: Granted that some people deserve to die, should the state be empowered to kill them in cold blood?

There's an undeniable intuitive appeal to the biblical injunction, "Whosoever sheds man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed." At a time when there were no prisons to incapacitate murderers, this approach certainly was better than the alternative. But now that murderers can be locked away for life, I'm not sure it is anymore, especially given the arbitrary results of the government's system for choosing between these two options.

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
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