The federal government’s first execution in 38 years comes at a time when DNA and other evidence has exonerated enough death row inmates to shake public confidence in the system.
Timothy McVeigh–an unrepentant, confessed mass murderer whose guilt was utterly clear–deserved the death penalty if anyone ever did, and an overwhelming majority of Americans favored his execution. But according to a recent Gallup poll, support for capital punishment as an institution has slipped from a peak of 80 percent in 1994 to 65 percent this year, in part, no doubt, because falling crime rates have eased public fears. When pollsters specify life imprisonment without parole as the alternative, support for the death penalty drops to 52 percent. Most respondents do not believe that the death penalty deters murders-which is “the only reason to be for it,” President Bush said last year. “I don’t think you should support the death penalty to seek revenge,” he added.
Bush’s comments may have dismayed those whose convictions call for executing the worst killers “in order to pay them back,” in the words of Walter Berns, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Meanwhile, equally resolved are religious objectors and others whose morality rejects all executions as immoral and “uniquely degrading to human dignity,” in the words of the late Justice William J. Brennan, Jr.