A botched execution in Oklahoma brought national attention to the issue, public opinion polls began to shift and President Obama, declaring that it was time to “ask ourselves some difficult and profound questions,” directed Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to review capital punishment.
At the Justice Department, a proposal soon began to take shape among Holder and senior officials: The administration could declare a formal moratorium on the federal death penalty because medical experts could not guarantee that the lethal drugs used did not cause terrible suffering. Such a declaration would have pressured states to do the same, the officials reasoned, and would bolster the legal argument that the death penalty is unconstitutionally cruel punishment.
But the idea never gained traction, and Obama has seldom mentioned the death penalty review since. Now, as the Supreme Court considered arguments Wednesday over whether lethal injection, as currently administered, was unconstitutional, the obstacles the Obama administration faced provide vivid examples of just how politically difficult the debate remains.
“It was a step in the right direction, but not enough of a step,” said Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a Harvard professor and a death penalty opponent who met with administration officials as part of the review. The Justice Department, he added, has been refusing to say what he thinks senior officials there believe: “We’ve had too many executions that didn’t work and killing somebody’s not the answer.”
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