With the death of Robert Alton Harris in California's gas chamber on April 21, the long, emotional debate over the death penalty in this country has entered an unfortunate new era.
Gone, for example, is the perception that capital punishment is a Southern phenomenon. Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstituted the death penalty in 1976, 20 states have conducted executions. But in the first four months of this year, Wyoming, Delaware, Arizona, and now California did so for the first time in a quarter century, nearly doubling the number of non-Southern states that have carried out a death sentence since 1976.
"Many people saw the death penalty as rooted in the South and tied to Southern law and race control," says Diann Rust-Tierney of the American Civil Liberties Union. "Now it is moving to the North and other states."
Gone, too, is the misperception that the courts will assure that every legal argument and appeal will be heard before an execution is carried out. In the Harris case, the Supreme Court overturned four appeals from a federal appellate court in a matter of hours before declaring that such appeals "were abusive" and ordering the execution to go forward.
"No further stays shall be entered by the federal courts," the justices ruled in a 7-2 vote that was quickly criticized by legal scholars as unconstitutional and abusive in its own right.
Yet there is one strong argument the courts did not hear: the moral case against the death penalty. Lost among the nuances of the endless legal petitions that made their way through the courts is the contention that, from a moral point of view, killing another person--especially when done by the state--is wrong.