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America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (At Least) a Generation

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With Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, the national fight to abolish capital punishment will have to go local.
When the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, just four years after de facto abolishing it, the justices effectively took ownership of the American death penalty and all its outcomes. They have spent the decades since then setting its legal and constitutional parameters, supervising its general implementation, sanctioning its use in specific cases, and brushing aside concerns about its many flaws.
That unusual role in the American legal system is about to change. With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles. In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row pr…

On 'Substituting the Electric Chair for the Hangman's Noose'

On Sept. 27, 1913, the 58th General Assembly of Tennessee approved Senate Bill 125, making the electric chair the state's official method of execution. The chair, which Tennessee has used to kill 126 prisoners - the 1st of whom was executed nearly 100 years ago on July 13, 1916 - is the subject of this week's cover story.

The bill adopting the electric chair in Tennessee stated that "whenever any person is sentenced to punishment by death, that court shall direct that the body of such person be subjected to shock by a sufficient current of electricity until he is dead." It appropriated $5,000 "or so much thereof as may be necessary" for the construction of a death chamber and electric chair. And while the condemned had previously been hanged to death in the counties where they were convicted, the bill also stated that all executions would thereafter be carried out in Nashville.

The legislation passed the Senate by a vote of 27 to 4 and the House by a vote of 64 to 2. In all, 6 men voted against it, and we only have their last names: Cecil, Fitzpatrick, Fulton, Hare, Emmons and Shaw. The bill was signed into law by then-Gov. Ben Hooper.

After the jump is the text of a editorial that ran in the Lawrence Democrat almost 2 weeks after the bill was passed. Among other things, it shows that a century later we're still having all the same arguments about the death penalty:

We are pleased with the passage of the law substituting the electric chair for the hangman's noose in Tennessee. It is a short step it is true but nevertheless a step in the direction of juster, less horrible, less barbaric penal laws.
The killing of men for crime is illogical, and out of harmony with saner instincts of civilization. The only reason to be urged for capital punishment is that the penalty be made thereby so harsh and horrible as to become a preventive force to the commission of crime. The student of history, however, knows that in every age it has failed utterly to accomplish this end. Wherever and whenever punishment has been most harsh and brutish, the very crimes thus sought to be prevented have instead increased. Barbarity does not reform the criminal. Harshness and horror of penalty rather sows the seeds of brutishness and blood-lust in the minds of those of inherent weakness or crime-tendency, which grows into a sanguinary harvest.
There is even in the mind of the ignorant, a sense of proportion, a conception of justice, which revolts at the idea of the state committing the very man-killing for which it condemns the individual to death. And while electrocution preserves this ancient horror, and perpetuates barbarity, yet it seeks to diminish its horror, and hide it away from publicity. Of course this is a contradiction in legal standard, a rank and palpable inconsistency to seek to take away the horror it may create. Electrocution shows a tendency in the public ideals toward a humaner, and a saner system, and will help bring man to a realization of the futility and hurtfulness of the age-old error of killing to punish killing. And as it has such a tendency we are pleased because of the passage of the law in Tennessee.

One wonders what the editorial board of the Lawrence Democrat thinks of the fact that 100 years later, this "age-old error" persists, slowed only by logistical concerns like the availability of drugs for lethal injection - the next execution method, adopted in the hopes that it was "a step in the direction of juster, less horrible, less barbaric penal laws."

Source: Nashville Scene, July 10, 2016

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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

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