October 23, 2014

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What’s next for death penalty?

NEW YORK — More than at any time over the past 30 years, the future of capital punishment is in limbo.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments next term in a momentous lethal injection case. While it’s widely expected that executions will resume in some form following that case, the moment gives Americans a chance to contemplate what would change if they stopped for good.

Start with some modest consequences.

Florida citizens would no longer have the chance to earn $150 by serving as executioner. Texas, by far the death-penalty leader, would save the $86.06 cost of drugs used in each lethal injection.

And Arizona’s Corrections Department would have no further updates on its special Web site that features photographs, profiles and last-meal requests of its executed inmates. (The most recent menu: Robert Comer’s order of fried okra, buns and banana bread before his death in May).

There would be weightier consequences as well.
• States with many death-penalty cases would save millions of dollars now spent on legal costs in long-running appeals. Additional savings would result in some states which now spend far more per inmate for Death Row facilities than other maximum-security inmates.
Abroad, notably in Europe and Canada, America’s image would improve in countries that abolished capital punishment decades ago and now wonder why America remains one of only a handful of prosperous democracies that continue with executions.
Among the American public, reaction would be deeply divided. Death penalty supporters would decry the loss of what they consider a valuable crime deterrent as well as the ultimate form of justice for victims and their families. Foes of execution would welcome the end of what they have deemed a barbaric national tradition.

“Texas would be a better place,” said David Atwood, founder of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. “I know people who’ve traveled abroad, and when they say where they’re from, the response is, ‘Oh, that’s the state that executes all those people.’ ”

By contrast, Rusty Hubbarth, vice president of the pro-death penalty Texas group Justice for All, sees the consequences of abolition as all bad. His prediction: “More murders.”

Texas was the venue for the nation’s most recent execution. Murderer Michael Richard died by lethal injection there on Sept. 25. Since then, executions in Texas and other states have been put on hold pending a Supreme Court decision — expected no sooner than June — on whether the standard lethal injection procedure can cause pain severe enough to violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Advocates on both sides of the debate say it’s likely the high court will offer some pathway for states to resume executions. But the lull coincides with other developments reflecting an unprecedented level of doubt about capital punishment.