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Time has come to abolish death penalty in our nation

You've probably had one of those days yourself, when the computer crashes in the midst of an important project or when you race to the courthouse to pay your tax bill on the last day only to miss closing time by a minute or two.

Michael Richard, late of Huntsville, Texas, had a day like that last month and it just killed him. Literally.

Richard was on the Texas death row for the rape and murder of a nurse in 1986. His attorneys were preparing a last-minute stay of execution appeal when the computer crashed. The attorneys notified the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals of the problem but the court declined to remain open past its normal 5 p.m. closing time to accommodate the appeal.

So, more than two decades after his crime, Richard went to his death by a matter of minutes due to a computer glitch, bringing a new meaning to the screen message "fatal error."

This occurred at the same time the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would review lethal injection in relation to cruel and unusual punishment. Although encouraging, the court is not dealing with abolition of the death penalty.

Assuming the high court does find lethal injection unconstitutional as being cruel and unusual punishment, all it would mean is that those states holding some 3,350 inmates on death row would have to find another method of dispatch. It would amount to little more than the court deciding whether the hangman's noose should be made of nylon or hemp.

The high court will be dealing with the three-part lethal injection protocol that is supposed to make the convict unconscious before stopping breathing, then the heart. The United States is among 69 countries - including such human rights stalwarts as Afghanistan, China, Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia - that has not abolished capital punishment, while 128 nations have ended it.

Abolition has never made it through Congress as federal law. Capital punishment is legal in 38 of the 50 states.

This should be one of those times in history when, if the right thing is not done by the legislative process, it can and should be done by the judicial process.

And abolishing the death penalty is the right thing.

John Paul II's encyclical Evangelium Vitae said capital punishment should be avoided unless it is the only way to defend society from the offender in question, and, with today's penal system such a situation requiring an execution is either rare or non-existent. "The Catechism of the Catholic Church" says the traditional teaching of the church permits the death penalty. But if non-lethal means are sufficient to protect public safety, it says these are more in keeping with the common good concerning the dignity of the human person.

Can't a country that can invent a telephone that takes photos plays videos and tracks location develop means short of death to protect itself?

Too many people are still looking at the microscopic loophole left by the pope and the catechism to justify capital punishment. Those opposed in principle should not have to use loopholes, such as the choice of poison.

Abolition of capital punishment could come more from judicial than legislative, as did voting rights, school integration and other landmark constitutional liberty questions.

The Supreme Court will be considering the appeal based on the method of execution - lethal injection. There is nothing preventing it however from taking one of the most courageous and significant steps - declaring the entire concept of capital punishment unconstitutional. That time has come.

Stephen Kent, retired editor of archdiocesan newspapers in Omaha and Seattle, writes from Seattle.

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