An unconscionable compromise on the death penalty

This week, the U.S. carried out its first federal executions in 17 years. The first to be executed was Daniel Lewis Lee who was convicted of killing a family of three. Next to go was Wesley Ira Purkey. He was convicted of killing a 16-year-old girl and then dismembering, burning, and dumping her body in a septic pond. He also was convicted in a state court after using a claw hammer to kill an 80-year-old woman who had polio.

The Washington Post’s report on Lee’s execution contains this quote from the killer’s attorney: “It is beyond shameful that the government, in the end, carried out this execution in haste, in the middle of the night, while the country was sleeping.” (Emphasis added)

Lee was convicted of murdering the family of three in 1999.

Reasonable people strongly hold differing views of the death penalty, but no reasonable person can believe there is anything hasty about its use in America. As Bill Otis says, “endless last-minute stunts, newly discovered brain lesions, sudden devotion to religion” are part of what Justice Alito has called the “guerilla war against the death penalty.”

Coupled these tactics with all of the appeals, and you get 23 years between conviction and execution in Lee’s case.

Purkey was convicted and sentenced in 2004. The stepmother of the girl Purkey killed doesn’t think the execution was hasty. She said:

It just took way too long. All these appeals, some of them he put through several times. And then we sat in a van for four hours this morning while he did a bunch more appeals. … We just shouldn’t have to wait this long.

The father added:

It brings up everything all over again. You just sit there and relive it.

I suppose the delay is the product of a standoff in America over the death penalty, a standoff reflected too in the 5-4 split at the Supreme Court over the carrying out of these two executions. A little more than half of the country and one of its political parties favor the death penalty, while more than 40 percent of Americans and the other party oppose it.

The result is that the death penalty remains on the books but is carried out rarely, and only after two decades or so of wrangling. In effect, this is a compromise and, to me, an unconscionable one.

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