As I have previously written, "evolving standards of decency" is a phrase used in Eighth Amendment jurisprudence to analyze whether a given practice is cruel and unusual. To date the Supreme Court has refused to find that capital punishment offends "the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."Nevertheless, that our "standards of decency" are considered to be "evolving" has always struck me as optimistic; as an acknowledgment that, while we may not be there yet, some day our society will evolve to the point where the death penalty will be unacceptable. Indeed, some states are moving in that direction. (See, e.g. Who's Next?; California's Broken Death Penalty.)
Meanwhile, others are moving in the opposite direction. With recent polling that shows support for the death penalty has hit a 39-year low, and widespread discomfort over the execution of Troy Davis, a backlash is to be expected. And so we have government officials spouting that the condemned have it far too easy. The last meal and a supposedly (but not actually) pain free death via lethal injection offend those politicians who persist in their belief that being inhumane is the best way to get votes and influence people.
Texas has ended the time-honored ritual of granting a last meal. An over-the-top request by one inmate apparently so outraged State Senator John Whitmore, that he demanded the executive director of the state prison agency end the practice or he would pass a bill to do so. In a matter of hours the director complied and from now on, inmates about to be executed will eat the same food as other inmates.
This is beyond petty. As Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said: “If the last meal process has been abused, then maybe it warrants changing, but there are a lot more serious abuses that have gone on in terms of lack of due process in Texas. Inmates would much prefer a last lawyer to a last meal.”
And then there is Florida, where State Senator Brad Drake is seeking to do away with lethal injection, and give inmates the choice of death by electrocution or firing squad: "Over the past few weeks, there has been much discussion and debate regarding the effectiveness of certain medicines used as preferred method for execution. So, I say let's end the debate. We still have Old Sparky. And if that doesn't suit the criminal, then we will provide them a .45 caliber lead cocktail instead."
The far more evolved and decent approach is that of Florida State Representative Michelle Rehwinkel-Vasilinda, who filed a bill to abolish the death penalty in the state. She hopes to eliminate costs related to death penalty cases and apply that money to hiring more police officers and law enforcement.
Fair and Unbalanced
Andrew Love has represented men and women on California's death row for 22 years. He also writes the blog Fair and Unbalanced.