Stephanie stood by the grave being dug for her for 20 minutes. Lockett shot her, but his gun jammed. So he walked back to the truck to fix it, listening to Stephanie cry, “Oh God! Please! Please!” The three men laughed at her.

Then he returned and shot her again. But Stephanie was still breathing — so Lockett told the others to bury her anyway. She coughed as dirt was heaped on her face. She was buried alive…

In addition to plotting hits against the four witnesses against him, while in prison, Lockett repeatedly threatened guards, was caught with homemade weapons, destroyed prison property, and threw feces and urine at officers bringing him food…

Lockett was so violent that other prisoners refused to be housed in the same cell with him, even though they could be punished for their refusal…

This is the murderer whose recent execution has thrown liberals into deep despair.

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The real surprise in all these numbers is that while the South still accounts for most executions, it also accounts for a great deal of the drop. (When you start at the top, you have a long way to fall.) Compare the 1990s with the present, and capital sentencing turns out to be declining even in former Southern strongholds. In North Carolina, where concerns about racial fairness actually led to legislative action, no one has been executed in eight years. And there’s another Southern, red-turning-purple state that leaps out here: Virginia. In the last six years, only two defendants have received sentences for capital murder in the state. (One of the two asked for this.) Also, there are only eight people sitting on Virginia’s death row…

For starters, the politics shifted. “Most people are still ‘for it,’ but no one votes for or against a political candidate because of the death penalty anymore, which means that prosecutors can settle almost any case without suffering any political fallout,” a Virginia defense lawyer told me. In Virginia, juries know they can impose a sentence of true life without parole, a punishment that addresses both the fear of putting a murderer back on the streets and the desire for retribution. For the families of victims, life without parole can provide far more closure than a death sentence, which involve 15 years of appeals on average—not to mention the prospect that the killer of your child or brother or mother could become a kind of martyr. “If Oklahoma had given Lockett life without parole, he would have never been heard of again,” Stephen Bright, president and senior counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights, pointed out to me…

Clayton Lockett’s nightmarish execution in Oklahoma exposed the flaw in the American system of state-imposed death that is actually the easiest to fix. If lethal injection becomes untenable, states bent on execution can bring back the firing squad. The problems that are much harder to address are the ones President Obama listed after Lockett died: racial bias, uneven application, and the haunting but real prospect of accidentally executing the innocent. These deep injustices have persisted for decades. And they tend to be worst in the holdout states, which is also where there’s little or no support for a functional system of defense lawyers. That’s why the American death penalty should fall of its own rotten weight.

***

[W]e now know with near certainty that innocent people have been put to death. For example, Texas in 2004 executed Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted of the murder of his three children by arson. Experts have now concluded that the original investigation in his case was seriously flawed and did not prove that that arson even took place. And just this year, it was discovered that Willingham’s prosecutor made a deal with a jailhouse informant in exchange for his testimony that Willingham had confessed the murder to him—a deal the prosecutor never disclosed to the defense at trial.

Similarly, DNA tests conducted in 2010, in conjunction with a key witness recanting his testimony, raised serious doubts that Texas death row inmate Claude Jones committed the murder for which he was convicted. Jones was executed in 2000…

Why does America’s criminal justice system continue to convict and execute innocent people? Eyewitness accounts, long considered the gold standard in criminal jurisprudence, have proven to be unreliable. Many defendants are represented by lawyers who are completely unprepared to handle death-penalty cases, and too often, courts have been either unable or unwilling to re-examine cases in which defendants were not provided with adequate representation.

Even forensic science is riddled with error, despite what many Americans believe from watching CSI. In fact, 50 of the first 225 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing involved unproven or improper forensic science, according to research compiled by the Innocence Project, and the Department of Justice and the National Institute of Standards have now formed a new commission to develop standards for improving forensic science.

***

For one, is it just? Starting from a pro-life point of view, it hardly seems consistent with a culture that values life. In fact, a couple of Republicans in Kentucky are reconciling that very notion right now. State Rep. David Floyd introduced a bill to repeal the state’s death penalty, arguing in the Louisville Courier-Journal that conservatives “should not support a state government program that can kill innocent people.”…

In the absence of any evidence that proves the death penalty reduces crime, we should continue asking serious questions about our commitment to it. (And might I remind fellow conservatives that we are quick to point out that there’s no evidence gun control reduces gun crime; we should apply the same level of scrutiny here.)…

In some states, a death penalty case can bankrupt a county. Seattle Times writer Jonathan Martin found that in Washington state, criminal justice costs consume 80% of county budgets, and administrators routinely worry about the financial devastation a capital case will cause.

Worse, states pay for the death penalty whether they use it or not. In New Jersey, prior to abolishing it, taxpayers spent more than a quarter-billion dollars on a capital punishment system that, over 23 years, executed no one.

***

No one is immune to these emotions, but we should recognize them as such. The emotional urge to kill as a palliative to disconsolate pain is real and not rare. Does it work? I am lucky not to know.

Rationally, there is no redeeming return on a death warrant. Instead, by condoning state executions, especially under such controlled, calculated circumstances, we are passively complicit in the taking of a defenseless life. We don’t inject the cocktail, obviously, but by our consent to murder — even if we call it justifiable — we are part of the lion’s den. This is what concerns me most.

For the more practical-minded, there’s ample evidence that the death penalty doesn’t deter criminals. And though I’m amenable to the argument that the death penalty at least deters this particular killer from committing another crime, we are still trading one eye for another.

To my own vengeful eye, life in prison is far more excruciating than a 43-minute execution. Far worse is a confined life without privilege or diversion — except perhaps for books because reading keeps the mind sharp, all the better to remain alert to one’s malignant fate.

***

Let’s have no illusions about what we’re doing when the state carries out the killing of captive prisoners. I imagine support for the death penalty would decline rather quickly once heads started rolling…

Even if there’s a case where there’s absolute certainty that the condemned is guilty, the execution still requires an executioner. Insofar as in individual takes on that role, he does damage to himself. (It’s no accident that firing squads are organized so that no one knows who fired the fatal shot.) And insofar as the executioner acts on behalf of society generally, he undermines that most crucial moral norm, the inviolability or sanctity of life.

This punishment isn’t worth the costs it imposes on us.

So let’s bring back the guillotine—and once it forces us to confront the barbarity of needlessly killing people who pose no threat to us, let’s abolish the death penalty. Countries without the death penalty get along just fine, and I don’t think Americans will be able to stomach it once they look it squarely in the face.

***

Would Jesus Christ oppose the death penalty if he were present today? According to a recent Barna poll, most Americans think so. Only five percent of Americans believe Jesus would support the government’s ability to execute the worst criminals. This includes 2 percent of Catholics, 8 percent of Protestants, and 10 percent of all practicing Christians. Christian leaders, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have also been some of the most outspoken opponents of executions. But overall, a majority of Americans back the death penalty…

Christians who support the death penalty often cite passages from the Old Testament that allowed for capital punishment. But Jesus told his followers not to observe the Jewish law that allowed for retributive justice: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”…

Many forget that Jesus once served as a one-man jury on a death-penalty case. In a famous New Testament story, an adulterous woman was dragged to Jesus’ feet. The woman was guilty of a capital offense and had been caught in the act by at least one witness. The law mandated her death but Jesus prescribed a different response: “Let whoever is without sin cast the first stone.” He was teaching that only a perfect being—only God—should have power over death and life.

With Jesus’s stark words and example, no wonder early Christians opposed military service and the government-sanctioned killing of anyone for at least 300 years. “Our warfare is to make the dead to live, not to make the living dead,” St. John Chrysostom said.

***

Can there be anything Obama does not know about capital punishment? The man was trained at an elite law school (Harvard) and later served as a law professor. The issue has been around since, probably, the first stoning, and nothing new can be said about it. Lockett, after all, is not the first condemned man to die slowly. It took the state of Ohio about 25 minutes — 20 minutes longer than usual — to kill Dennis McGuire last January. We now know it can be exceedingly difficult to kill the killers…

Capital punishment is totally a matter of one’s conviction. There is no science to it. George W. Bush’s convictions were well known. He adhered to a primitive eye-for-an-eye belief that was resistant to reason. As with almost everything — including the making of war — if Bush was comfortable with it, he did it.

With Obama, it’s just the opposite. His convictions regarding capital punishment waver. He supports it, but only when the crimes are, as he said last week, like “mass killings, the killings of children.” Still, his statements are so laden with caveats and conditions that it seems fair to say that Obama, as befits his background and education, would not weep if the United States joined most of the world and abolished capital punishment. We keep interesting company — North Korea, China, Saudi Arabia and some others. This is not our crowd.

Obama’s position may be evolving, as it did with same-sex marriage.

***

The most cynical argument against the death penalty is to point out how slow and expensive the process is. But it is slow and expensive at least in part because its opponents have made it slow and expensive, so they can complain about how slow and expensive it is.

As for humaneness, Lockett’s execution was botched — “inhumane” — in part because Oklahoma had to use a new drug regimen because death-penalty opponents had successfully lobbied the maker of a component of an earlier formula to stop making that drug available for executions.

Some believe the best argument against the death penalty is the fear that an innocent person might be executed. It’s hotly debated whether that has ever happened, but it’s clear that innocent people have been sent to death row. Even one such circumstance is outrageous and unacceptable.

But even that is not an argument against the death penalty per se. The FDA, police officers, and other government entities with less constitutional legitimacy than the death penalty (see the Fifth and 14th amendments) have made errors that resulted in innocent deaths. That doesn’t render these entities and their functions illegitimate. It obligates government to do better.

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