There is a change in the air; you can almost feel it.
It has nothing to do with the winding down of summer and the kids buying new backpacks and planning their return to the school routine. Has nothing to do with artificial pumpkins showing up on grocery and drug store shelves.
It has everything to do with the death penalty.
When it comes to capital punishment, attitudes are changing all across the nation — even in Kentucky.
As Assistant Editor Marnie McAllister reported in last week’s edition of The Record, the state General Assembly’s Joint Interim Committee on the Judiciary held a public hearing on the death penalty Aug. 1 in Paducah — and that alone is quite a change. It marked the first public hearing on Kentucky’s death penalty since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.
Significant? You bet.
Father Patrick Delahanty, chair of the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said the hearing was “a serious discussion and the attention of legislators was intense. They were paying attention and the audience, it was silent.”
“There’s a mood in the country,” that’s reframing the debate, Father Delahanty told McAllister. “They’re seeing botched executions.”
Indeed they are — one after the other, it seems.
We might have thought we’d seen horror enough when the state of Oklahoma attempted to kill death-row prisoner Clayton Lockett on April 29. Those who watched that state-sanctioned murder saw the man struggle and writhe — in what reporters who observed the abomination called agony — for 40 minutes after the lethal drugs had been administered. Things were going so badly that Oklahoma prison officials finally unhooked Lockett from the death chamber device that administers the drugs, only to have him die soon afterward of an apparent heart attack.
As if that wasn’t enough, the July 23 execution of Joseph Wood in Arizona was even worse.
After the supposedly-lethal drugs were shot into Wood’s arm, it took another hour and 57 minutes for him to die.
During the ordeal, Wood’s lawyers tried — unsuccessfully — to get the Supreme Court to order the state to halt the execution while it was taking place. They said it was “cruel and unusual punishment.” And it was; even someone who’s hanged dies more quickly and humanely, if you can dare call it that.
Such botched executions are sickening, and more and more people are tired of reading and hearing about them. More and more people are tired of the notion of the state killing someone in their name, someone who, in some cases, may well be not guilty of murder.
Just give some attention to the Aug. 1 hearing testimony of Allen Ault, a former corrections official.
McAllister reported that Ault told the judiciary committee that he had committed “premeditated murder” five times.
“For me, capital punishment is not theoretical or philosophical,” he said. “I have murdered five people as an agent of the state.”
The hearing drew 32 state senators and representatives, along with about 75 observers. It might or might not have changed many minds, but make no mistake about it — minds and opinions are changing. Consider the following:
-A poll earlier this year by ABC News and the Washington Post found that a majority of Americans — 52 percent — prefer life without parole as punishment for convicted murderers, with just 42 percent favoring the death penalty. Even without the availability of that alternative sentence of life without parole, support for capital punishment was just 61 percent, which might seem high but represents a drop from the death penalty’s peak approval rate of 80 percent in 1994.
-A Pew Research Center poll in February of this year showed that “support for the death penalty has fallen sharply by 23 percentage points since 1996, reaching its lowest level in almost two decades.”
-A January 2014 poll by the Barna Group found that only “40 percent of practicing Christians support the death penalty, and support was even lower among younger Christians.” According to the poll (which was released on Jan. 17) only 23 percent of practicing Christians who were born between 1980 and 2000 agreed with the statement: “The government should have the option to execute the worst criminals.”
-And a Gallup poll in October of last year found “the lowest level of support for the death penalty in America since 1972.” The Gallup poll said that 60 percent of
Americans were in favor of the death penalty, as opposed to 80 percent who supported it in 1994. What may be even more significant, when the poll offered respondents the “death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole,” less than 50 percent supported the death penalty.
The Catholic Church, as everyone knows, has led opposition to the death penalty for generations. And now, like everyone else, church leaders can see and hear the attitudes toward capital punishment changing. The Paducah hearing testimony illustrates it; all of the polls show it.
It quantifies what is otherwise an immeasurable feeling in the air that, in the words of the late Sam Cooke, “It’s been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come.”