Gilbert King: Historian says Sup Ct gets history of death penalty wrong





[Gilbert King is the author of “The Execution of Willie Francis: Race, Murder and the Search for Justice in the American South.”]

THE Supreme Court concluded last week, in a 7-2 ruling, that Kentucky’s three-drug method of execution by lethal injection does not violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts cited a Supreme Court principle from a ruling in 1890 that defines cruelty as limited to punishments that “involve torture or a lingering death.”

But the court was wrong in the 19th century, an error that has infected its jurisprudence for more than 100 years. In this nation’s landmark capital punishment cases, the resultant executions were anything but free from torture and prolonged deaths.

The first of those landmark cases, the 1879 case of Wilkerson v. Utah, was cited by Justice Clarence Thomas, in his concurring opinion in the Kentucky case. The court “had no difficulty concluding that death by firing squad” did not amount to cruel and unusual punishment, Justice Thomas wrote.

Wallace Wilkerson might have begged to differ. Once the Supreme Court affirmed Utah’s right to eradicate him by rifle, Wilkerson was let into a jailyard where he declined to be blindfolded. A sheriff gave the command to fire and Wilkerson braced for the barrage. He moved just enough for the bullets to strike his arm and torso but not his heart.

“My God!” Wilkerson shrieked. “My God! They have missed!” More than 27 minutes passed as Wilkerson bled to death in front of astonished witnesses and a helpless doctor....



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