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A deadly clarity

February 23, 2006

WHY DON'T WE JUST SHOOT Michael Morales? Or suffocate him with poison gas, or incinerate him with electricity, or strangle him with a noose? And put it on TV, so everyone can watch.

Too gruesome? Too uncivilized? Of course. (Although it should be noted that in California, an inmate can still request the gas chamber.) So why is it acceptable to inject him with heart-stopping drugs inside a tiny chamber, out of public view except for a few witnesses?

Morales' execution was delayed on Tuesday to give courts time to examine whether California's method of putting people to death is unconstitutionally cruel; it's likely his sentence will not be carried out until at least May. For those who oppose capital punishment, as we do, the postponement is welcome. But the problem here is the death penalty itself, not how it is administered.

Meanwhile, we're not quite sure what to make of the qualms of the two physicians who were supposed to be on hand to assure that Morales was completely sedated before he was injected with lethal chemicals. The doctors backed out when they realized that their work would actually assist in the killing.

Well, no kidding. The idea that they could hermetically seal themselves off from the execution itself, while providing medical advice on the depth of Morales' sedation, was ridiculous to begin with. Still, maybe their second thoughts will prompt a few more -- on a wider scale.

One of the effects of lethal injection is to desensitize the public to what is being done in its name. Yet an execution that is purportedly scientific, clean and painless, and carried out away from public view, is still an execution. Of the 36 states in which the death penalty is in effect, all but one -- Nebraska -- prefer lethal injection, although electrocution, hanging or the firing squad are still possibilities in 14 states.

Like the crimes for which it is a punishment, the death penalty is an affront to civilized society. It should not be reformed -- it should be abolished. But if California is going to keep at it, let's try a reform that will remind us what we are doing while at the same time making sure, without help from a doctor, that the condemned prisoner is really dead. The state should convene a firing squad -- and be certain to schedule the execution for prime time.

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