Partisans bicker over execution word choice

Partisans bicker over execution word choice

Among the P.R. flotsam and jetsam swirling in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s April 16 decision on lethal injection, a semantic battle over the death penalty continues in Virginia. On April 1, Democratic Governor Tim Kaine granted what he called “a temporary reprieve” of the April 8 execution of Edward Nathaniel Bell while awaiting the Court’s ruling.

But 15 days later, after the Supreme Court ruled that Kentucky’s method of lethal injection was constitutional, Republican Attorney General Bob McDonnell sent a press release stating, “Now that the Court has ruled, the Governor has rightly lifted his moratorium on executions in Virginia.”


Governor Tim Kaine, a Democrat, says he granted a death penalty reprieve. Republican Attorney General Bob McDonnell calls it a “moratorium,” which is apparently a scarier word to those who want to keep death chambers in full swing

So what’s the difference between Kaine’s “reprieve” and McDonnell’s “moratorium?” In practice, nothing. But in the fight over the death penalty, a reprieve by any other name just doesn’t rile the pro-death penalty crowd as readily.

“To call it a moratorium is what the political opponents of Kaine called it,” says Jon Sheldon, board president of Virginians Against the Death Penalty. “I think to use the word ‘moratorium’ is sort of a buzzword for the Republicans to use to attack Kaine for being prudent. The Republicans know that it’s a good buzzword because it’ll get their constituency all in a lather.”

And even though Virginia’s execution machine as been fired up once again after the Court’s decision on Baze v. Rees, Sheldon says that Baze opens Virginia’s lethal injection process to the same kind of procedural challenges that were brought in Baze.

Kentucky uses two safeguards that Virginia doesn’t: medically trained IV teams in the death chamber and anesthesia monitoring of inmates. Because Virginia’s standards fall below Kentucky’s, says Sheldon, it may be open to challenges using the standards set in Baze.

“It appears under Baze,” he says, “a judge could say, ‘Virginia doesn’t meet this standard.’”

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