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Condemn the penalty instead

With good reason, pressure from many quarters is being heaped on the Legislature to abandon electrocution as a means of killing Florida death row prisoners. Better still, why don't we just kill the death penalty?

In a case decided last month, three members of the Florida Supreme Court expressed the belief that the continued use of the electric chair constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. And although a four-member majority would allow the state to continue using the chair, two members of that majority wrote a plea to the Legislature to amend the law to allow lethal injection as an option in order to "avert a possible constitutional "train wreck' if this or any other court should ever determine that electrocution is unconstitutional."

In addition, the Florida Corrections Commission, the group charged with making recommendations on the corrections system, suggested in a letter to the governor and legislative leaders that the state phase out the use of the electric chair and adopt lethal injection as a "more humane method of execution."

And most recently, on Oct. 31, Gov. Lawton Chiles suspended scheduled executions until March, in order to give the Legislature an opportunity to change the death penalty statute to provide for a lethal injection option.

Yes, lethal injection is a demonstrably less macabre means of execution, and the Legislature should substitute intravenous death for the gruesome spectacle of electrocution. But the real question is not how to kill inmates more humanely but whether the mores of a civilized society allow the use of capital punishment at all.

We are one of the few Western nations left to practice state execution. Yet, we do much more than just practice it; our leaders celebrate it. Texas this year has executed more people than Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria combined. The fact that the United States has 3,000 people on death row has prompted a review of our system of death by a United Nations human rights monitor. The monitor, Senegalese lawyer Bacre Waly Ndiaye, told the New York Times that, after China, "the United States has done more than any other nation to expand the use of the death penalty."

Regardless of whether you think the death penalty is immoral _ and principled people can disagree on this question _ there is a very practical argument against it: It will take the life of an innocent person. It is impossible to design a system to prevent this eventuality.

The Florida Supreme Court's opinion and the governor's decision to temporarily postpone executions establish a more restrained tone for a debate that at times has bordered on blood-thirsty hysteria in this state. But there is a real danger that if Florida makes the switch to lethal injection, executions will be seen as more "humane" and therefore more acceptable to the general public. By definition, however, no execution is palatable. Electrocution, firing squad, gas chamber or lethal injection _ however the deed is done, it's wrong.