by Max Brantley
The rush of executions is notable not only for its barbarism but also for its contrast to prevailing thinking about capital punishment. Support for the death penalty peaked in 1994, with eighty per cent of Americans in favor. Last year, a Pew study found that the number had fallen to forty-nine per cent—the first time since 1971 that less than half of the public supported it. ...Cobb notes Arkansas isn't alone in sticking with the death penalty.
There is also a growing awareness that it is perhaps impossible to create a justice system that both executes criminals and avoids killing innocents.
Last year, the Presidential election was won by a man who had demanded the death penalty for five young black and Latino men who were convicted of a brutal rape in Central Park that they did not commit. He appointed an Attorney General who had successfully fought to vitiate federal prohibitions on the execution of the mentally ill. He chose a Supreme Court Justice who, in his first major vote on the Court, cast the decisive one, in a 5–4 decision, to allow an execution to proceed—that of Ledell Lee, who died minutes later.
These are the actions of powerful men in service of outmoded ideas. We in this country are unaccustomed to mass executions carried out under government auspices. We would prefer to believe that such things happen in less evolved locales. Yet that is precisely what the state of Arkansas set out to achieve. The condemned men perpetrated a litany of horrors, but the rationales for putting them to death—a decades-delayed catharsis for the victims’ families, a lottery-slim chance that some future violence will be deterred—are as close to their expiration as Arkansas’s supply of midazolam