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The tumbrels roll.

The Tumbrels Roll

There seems to be no limit to the U.S. Supreme Court's drive to get on with the death penalty. Recently, the Court allowed the State of Texas to kill Doyle Edward Skillern by injection even though the Justices were, and technically still are, weighing the legality of that method of execution.

It's not the first example of the Court's eagerness to get the tumbrels rolling, just the most fiagrant. In December, by a 5-to-4 vote, the Court permitted Georgia to execute a black man even though a lower Federal court had yet to decide whether the state's capital punishment law discriminates against blacks. In a case earlier this month, the Justices did not even insist on a majority vote; splitting 4 to 4, they let Georgia send another man to the electric chair. In neither case did the Court bother to explain itself.

The Court's refusal to block those two electrocutions reflected its tendency to proceed without caution. With Skillern, the Justices' action suggests utter disregard for that simplest notion of fairness in capital cases: a condemned prisoner ought to be entitled to live while a court resolves his legal claims, especially when he is challenging the method of execution about to be inflicted.

It's not that the Court thought Skillern's claims were frivolous. He was one of eight inmates on death row who in 1983 sued to force the Food and Drug Administration to determine if the lethal drugs used in executions caused "agonizingly slow and painful deaths.' It may have been a bizarre idea for a lawsuit, but a Federal appeals court thought otherwise. The court agreed with the inmates and ordered the F.D.A. to investigate the claim. After the F.D.A. appealed, the Supreme Court decided to take the case. It could have summarily reversed the lower court but thought the issue important enough to warrant full consideration. The Justices heard arguments on December 3 and presumably will rule before July.

The six-Justice majority rejecting Skillern's request for a stay gave no explanation for its decision. Justice William J. Brennan Jr. was not so reticent. In a searing dissent he wrote, "The irony of this Court's . . . action will not be lost on the public, when we ultimately issue a decision to a plaintiff no longer able to receive it.'

That is doubtful. Capital punishment is not news these days. There were five executions in the last month, and the total for 1985 could be the highest since the 1950s. We are a nation hellbent on vengeance. Death at the hands of the state has become banal, for Justices and public alike.

So be it, perhaps. We may leave debate about the morality of the death penalty to another day. But the strange happenings in the Skillern execution should trouble anyone who believes that fair procedures are a constitutional right--even for convicted murderers. Should we not expect at least that from the highest court in the land?

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Title Annotation:Supreme Court lets executions happen before legal issues solved
Author:Kaplan, David A.
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:editorial
Date:Feb 16, 1985
Words:496
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