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What California can learn from Ohio's botched execution

It was only supposed to take a couple of minutes, but for reasons that remain murky, the execution last week of convicted Ohio murderer Dennis McGuire dragged on for more than a quarter of an hour. It was Ohio’s first use of a new dual-drug lethal-injection recipe, and it was far from flawless as the executioner’s chemical cocktail, instead of quickly rendering McGuire insensate, slowly and painfully starved him of oxygen.

While pro-death-penalty advocates may shrug off McGuire’s physical suffering as inconsequential compared with his crime -- the rape and murder of a pregnant woman -- we should all take pause at the spectacle of someone being tortured to death by, in essence, the American people.

The U.S. judicial system is generally sound, but its problems have been well documented: Prosecutors gaming the system. Eyewitnesses who were wrong or, even worse, coerced by law enforcement officials. A mind-set that puts victory in the courtroom ahead of the pursuit of justice.

DNA technology has helped overcome some of these problems, freeing innocent people -- usually men of color -- often after years behind bars. More ominously, at least 140 people have been freed from death rows since 1973 after DNA tests affirmed their innocence. No one knows how many wrongly convicted men and women have been put to death, and against a backdrop of such an unreliable system, it’s hard to mount a cogent defense of executing people.

Now we have the overlay of a painful death inflicted in the name of justice.

California has had its own problems trying to come up with an acceptable method of lethal injection, problems that have led to a moratorium since 2006. Last year, the Brown administration dropped a long legal fight to preserve a three-drug protocol that failed to meet court approval and announced it would seek a single-drug method, a process that apparently is still underway.

It should tell us something that finding a constitutional approach to capital punishment has become so hard. Manufacturers of the most commonly used drugs have stopped providing them as tools of execution, forcing states to undertake macabre searches for alternative ways of killing condemned prisoners.

Rather than joining that search, California should join the 18 states that no longer execute their citizens. Voters had the chance to do just that in November 2012, but Proposition 34 failed at the polls 52% to 48%, driven in part by opposition from law enforcement and prison guards. Which was unfortunate. The moral answer on this issue is not to punish a death with a death; if we believe that in a civil society that killing is wrong, then why do we sanction it as a state action?

That isn’t to say we should be lenient toward convicted murderers or most other people convicted of crimes (wavering only for extenuating circumstances). But we should be humane, and we should shape punishment to fit the frame of what we want our justice system to achieve. Is it to serve as a proxy for vengeful victims, who are entitled to their anger and rage? Or is it to protect society from the dangerous and the predatory, while trying to rehabilitate those who can be returned to society? And note that the death penalty does nothing to deter those who would kill.

The botched execution in Ohio is an Ohio problem, but it also provides California with an opportunity to revisit our embrace of capital punishment. The system is flawed, the method of execution unconstitutional, the costs exorbitant and the societal gain limited.

So let’s abandon it. In the name of justice.

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Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle

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