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Why Fight for a Cruel Method? : California shouldn't appeal court ruling that shut the gas chamber door

October 06, 1994

This newspaper opposes the death penalty essentially because it requires the state to act in a way unbefitting a democratic society. The ruling Tuesday by a federal judge declaring execution in the gas chamber to be unconstitutional only reinforces our view.

U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel's ruling is the first by a federal judge that the gas chamber violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Patel found that the cyanide gas causes extreme pain. Her ruling permits execution by lethal injection, which California provides as an alternative.

Patel's decision does not address the constitutionality of the death penalty itself; it does not overturn the sentences of the 387 people condemned to death in California. But thedecision--which state officials have vowed to appeal--will add to the already significant cost and delay involved in carrying out death sentences.

When it was built in the 1930s, California's gas chamber was considered a humane alternative to hanging. Now only five of the 37 states with the death penalty still use a gas chamber, and all offer lethal injection as an alternative. A law signed by Gov. Pete Wilson in 1992 allows condemned prisoners to make that choice. So the state probably can proceed with executions by injection, but it will appeal Patel's ruling to prevent inroads on the constitutionality of the death penalty itself.

Should the state impose the ultimate punishment to eliminate those who have committed crimes so heinous they should not be allowed to live in civilized society? If so, then execution by injection is certainly preferable. We see no need for the state to expend effort and money to retain its ability to conduct executions in a manner now held impermissibly cruel.

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