Faint, Anemic Hope For Death Penalty Reform Maybe Appears On Horizon

Last week, Clayton Lockett, a convicted killer, died strapped to a table in Oklahoma, but nothing else about it went as planned. The widespread public queasiness which followed infected even some steadfast supporters of the death penalty, leading to hopes for reform. Are those hopes misplaced?

Well, while the needle on that one has not yet made it all the way at "Possibly," it does seem to be moving slowly from "Snowball's Chance in Hell" to "Maybe If People Get Real Serious."

Sure, there are still signs that nothing will really change, among them this report from Andrew Cohen at The Week about the task force Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin set up after the Lockett execution. Cohen points out that the bureaucrats who will conduct the study are loyal to Fallin and thus unlikely to take anyone seriously to task about what happened last Wednesday. Per Cohen:

Does anyone think that Thompson, the newly appointed chief investigator, is going to question his boss under oath about her important role in this sorry story? Is he really going to issue a report that blasts her intervention in core judicial functions? Is he going to call members of the state legislature to explain and justify their impeachment proceedings? Is he going to explore the public rift now widening between state officials and the corrections officials' union? If he does so, he will effectively end his career in state government. And if he does not, this "independent" investigation will be a sham.

Fair point! But because we want to preserve some kind of hope in this time we spend here on earth, I'm happy to report that there have been, in the last week, some encouraging developments.

Chief among them was the fact that Obama himself said he found the circumstances of Lockett's death "deeply troubling," and that he'd asked Eric Holder to take a broader look at the death penalty itself. A symbolic gesture, sure, but this is America, we have to be grateful for crumbs sometimes.

And then today the Constitution Project released a report that, while it took no position on the propriety of the death penalty, was highly critical of the way it's currently being administered. And among them was a recommendation that instead of using the dreaded three-drug cocktail which probably resulted in so much suffering for Lockett, states should use a one-drug method. In effect, they think that the only humane method of execution would be to administer a massive dose of the barbituate that right now just sedates the inmate at the outset of the procedure.

There's a catch, of course, in that barbituates are still in short supply in the United States, so even the panel's recommendation hits practical snags:

Many medical experts agree, but an acute shortage of traditional barbiturates, mainly because manufacturers refuse to provide them for executions, has led states to scramble for secret suppliers and try out new drug combinations. Mr. White said in an interview that it was up to the states to find a humane method.

For those of us against the death penalty, that is an unequivocal bright side. It's hard to get too upset about the possibility that states will be stymied by the practicalities of designing a "humane" method of death.

And if that weren't enough, the report — which again, is non-partisan — goes on to point out a number of other problems in the death penalty process, ranging from the bad forensic practices that lead to so many DNA exonerations via the Innocence Project down to the arbitrary evaluation of mental disability in death row inmates.

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