In 1991, William Lynn a minister in Alabama was murdered in his home. His wife was badly injured but survived. One of the two people convicted of murdering William Lynn was Christopher Price who is now on death row, scheduled for execution and the subject of a controversial decision by the Supreme Court. The controversy started when Price asked for an alternative method of execution.
The State of Alabama is claiming that Price missed the deadline for choosing to be executed by nitrogen hypoxia instead of the state’s default, three-chemical injection which can subject the inmate to excruciating pain.
A federal district court in Alabama halted the execution on Thursday, citing “new evidence”. Of course we don’t know what that evidence is yet but it seems at this point I can’t seen any other reason other than possible discrepancies in Alabama’s claim. It doesn’t help that on that same day at 9:00 PM, Alabama officials asked the Supreme Court to overrule the district court order so they could proceed with the execution anyway. That’s when Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Beyers issued a request to stay the execution until after the court has a chance to meet in the morning and discuss the lower court decision before overruling it.
The New York Times reported today on that decision by the 5-member, conservative, Supreme Court majority to deny that request and green light the execution.
Maybe this all seems like a big fuss over something as trivial as whether or not a convicted murderer gets to choose the method in which he is executed. Or maybe this story is more about the deliberate choice the state is making to execute someone in the most painful way they can. If that’s case, this is a huge deal because we are talking about the line that separates civilized people from barbarians.
Here’s what the New York Times reported…
Justice Breyer’s dissent reflects that things have quickly gotten ugly at the court since the replacement of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who was a moderating force in capital cases, with the more conservative Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.
The divide between the two sides has hardened in recent weeks, with conservative justices growing increasingly frustrated over what they considered excessive delays in carrying out executions. The liberal justices have in turn accused the majority of reckless haste that could give rise to executions so painful as to amount to torture.
So, the conservative judges are basically saying they’re getting tired of these delays… Well… Is it not their JOB to deal with these things? If they can’t handle it or simply can’t be bothered then shouldn’t that mean it’s time for them to retire?
Or is this actually about vengeance? It turns out that the contention within the court itself was already enough to expire the Alabama death warrant, necessitating a re-issue and a new execution date, possibly delaying the execution by another 30 days. The reaction by some clearly exposes a vindictive streak in the community that I hope isn’t affecting the bench.
The article quotes Attorney General Steven T. Marshall following the event.
“Tonight, in the middle of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, the family of Pastor Bill Lynn was deprived of justice,” Attorney General Steven T. Marshall said. “They were, in effect, revictimized by a killer trying to evade his just punishment.”
I realize that many people are inclined to focus on the crime but the perpetrator in this case HAS been removed from society and is in prison waiting to be executed. Does it really matter if the execution is delayed for a few hours, or days or even weeks? Do these delays really amount to a “revictimization”? I don’t think so and I find it disturbing that people are so ready to call a frustrated demand for vengeance a “revictimization”.
Of course this could all be solved very easily, Execute Price with nitrogen hypoxia. Done. The execution would not have been delayed and the courts would not have even been involved. But Alabama doesn’t want to execute him that way – Alabama wants to execute him the more painful way. That is the ONLY reason why it ever got to the courts.
Indeed, the concern the conservatives apparently don’t want to hear is nothing less than a founding principal of our western culture. Institutionalized in Common Law, adapted into the English Bill of Rights and again into the U.S. Constitution as part of the 8th Amendment, the idea that for centuries has been held as the line between barbarians and civil society… that a justice system not be allowed to inflict cruel and unusual punishment. There’s literally no valid reason to rush the execution if this civil right is still in question.
Yes, the court could have delayed the execution – (the inmate isn’t going anywhere). Yes, the court could have met in person to discuss the matter in a constitutional context. Yes, Alabama could have found another, less painful method of execution. None of these things would have reversed the conviction or cancelled the punishment, neither would they have been difficult to do or costly to afford. So exactly what excuse does that leave? Clearly, if the state is willing to take this to the Supreme Court *something* is functioning as a driving motivation. It’s sad to realize that the closest thing to a logical excuse for such haste is the type of vengeance so overtly pronounced in Attorney General Steven T. Marshall’s quote.
So this is where I really want to make some clear distinctions. A justice system can serve one of two purposes. It can enforce the law or it can satisfy the vindictive. Granted, some law-enforcing decisions can also be vengeance for some, but should vengeance ever be the primary motive, much less to the point of breaking the law?
It makes logical sense to execute those who have committed heinous crimes, especially if it’s been a pattern for them because of the risk they pose to society. But I think a civil society really needs to understand the magnitude of taking a human life. One such society might insure that every alternative be considered first, execution last. One such society might also understand the sobriety of the task and not to celebrate it, exploit it or be impetuous with it because you’re to old and tired to do your job as a Supreme Court Justice for a constitutional republic.