Our Opinion: Death penalty issue deserves direct approach

News Tribune editorial

A state senator is attempting to thwart an end run by death penalty opponents.

Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, has filed legislation that would expand methods of execution. His legislation is a response to efforts by anti-death penalty advocates to halt executions by effectively blocking the drugs needed to carry them out.

“They (opponents) are basically using the difficulty of getting ahold of an execution drug … to basically do an end-around to change public policy,” Schaefer said.

His assessment of the tactic is accurate, which is not to say the tactic isn’t commonplace. Opponents of a specific public policy routinely invoke the strategy to restrict what they can’t repeal.

Schaefer’s bill may not be the ideal approach, but it marks a step in the right direction.

Regarding the death penalty, state law permits execution by lethal chemicals (via injection) or gas (via a gas chamber). Missouri no longer maintains an operational gas chamber. The state’s use of lethal chemicals has changed from a three-drug protocol, to propofol to pentobarbital.

Those changes have come in response to a series of impediments orchestrated by death penalty opponents.

The impediments — the opponents’ “end run” — have prompted Schaefer to seek a wider spectrum of execution methods.

Federal law permits — in addition to lethal chemicals and gas — electrocutions, hangings and firing squads, which all would be options under Schaefer’s bill.

Schaefer’s legislation would authorize the Missouri Department of Corrections to select the method of execution from among available options.

The provision already has drawn objections, and legal challenges in other states, based on the argument decisions of that magnitude should not be delegated to an administrative agency.

The provision may need to be altered or omitted, but the overall intent of the proposal remains sound.

As we have said previously in this forum, we have qualms about the justification for execution. Those qualms focus on public policy, not procedure; we know of no Missouri execution that has violated the constitutional prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Capital punishment is a public policy issue that deserves to be met head on, rather than circumvented by an end run.

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