Political Horizons: Pending execution renews questions about capital punishment

In the 15 or so years that have passed since regularly covering death row news in Texas, I’ve been able to dodge the uneasy questions about the role of the death penalty in civilized society.

But that hiatus is likely to end this week.

Prosecutors and capital punishment lawyers give the state a better than even chance of executing Christopher Sepulvado on Wednesday. He was convicted in 1993 of torturing to death a 6-year-old over a three-day period.

Sepulvado will be the first person executed in this state — against his will — since 2002.

The renewal of executions brings back all the uncomfortable questions that were put aside when nobody was being put to death by state government.

I started out covering death row in the 1980s absolutely firm in the belief that capital punishment was wrong for a civilized society. But, as often is the case, simple positions strongly held don’t bear up well under the scrutiny of its contradictions.

How could anyone feel safe in their own homes with case after case of horrific brutality visited upon innocents? Capital punishment may be bad for society, but justice swift and sure seems the only way to deal with a predator.

If my encounters in Texas were any indication of the whole, then the nation’s 3,108 condemned killers are overwhelming poor, angry, with limited intelligence and damaged by years of abuse. There are few, if any, super criminals with compelling back stories and intriguing idiosyncrasies. They seemed more at home with a pipe and crack cocaine than with “fava beans and a nice Chianti.”

The Catholic Church says the focus should not be on retribution and punishment, but on the damage to society, as a whole, that comes from embracing organized and sanctioned killing by the state.

The last three popes said look at the bigger picture.

Pope John Paul II in 1995 reversed the Church’s centuries-old defense of capital punishment, saying improvements in the modern penal systems made the cases in which the death penalty could apply “very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

Even before assuming the papacy, Pope Benedict XVI emphasized in his writings that the “culture of life,” or history’s march towards greater human dignity is sidetracked by allowing by state-sanctioned executions.

And in June, Pope Francis reiterated the Holy See’s support for the abolition of the death penalty, saying “humanity can successfully confront criminality” without resorting to suppression of human life.

Over the past few years the number of executions nationwide — a total of 1,365 since 1976 — has dropped from a high of 98 in 1999 to around 40 per year since 2011. The number of convicted murderers sentenced to death has dropped a third, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, to about 80 per year since 2011.

The biggest issue for Louisiana — and for other states — is that pharmaceutical companies are refusing to sell the three-drug combination necessary for the “death cocktail” used in lethal injections. Louisiana’s Corrections Department announced last week it might use a two-drug combination to render the condemned unconscious and then induce paralysis.

That’s the same mixture used Jan. 16 in Ohio that caused the condemned, according to published reports, to repeatedly gasp for air, “making snorting and choking sounds for about 10 minutes.”

Sepulvado’s lawyers asked the U.S. Supreme Court last week to stop Wednesday’s execution, arguing that the risk of prolonged agony, as shown in Ohio, violates constitutional bans on cruel and unusual punishment.

It’s a position that has raised a roar of “So what!”

In Ohio, the victim’s family listed the terrors inflicted on Carol Avery, then said she suffered far more in her death than her killer did in his execution.

Hoping to circumvent legal arguments in the future, state legislators, with the possible support of Gov. Bobby Jindal, are preparing bills that would return the electric chair to Louisiana.

State Sen. Bob Kostelka, R-Monroe, is a former prosecutor and district judge who now chairs the Senate committee that would consider such legislation. He pointed out that lethal injection replaced the electric chair in 1991 because it was deemed less inhumane.

All this deals with the practical, how to execute issues.

Perhaps, take a few moments to debate the deeper question: Should the state kill?

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard @theadvocate.com.