Twenty-one years ago this week, Florida executed Jesse Tafero in the electric chair. The significance of this state-sanctioned murder is that it was a continuing example of what can go wrong and why change was needed. Unfortunately, the change made was not the change needed. Tafero was tortured as the electric chair malfunctioned three times. Tafero was still alive as flames jumped from his head. Florida eventually ceased using the electric chair and began executing defendants with lethal injection. The method doesn’t determine what is and isn’t humane – the death itself is not humane; it’s barbaric.
Perhaps politicians are beginning to understand the gruesome practice for what it is. There were no bills introduced this legislative session in Iowa that would have reinstated capital punishment. The death penalty was supposed to be a defining issue in political races of the past. It’s not now, and it never was.
Governor Tom Vilsack proved that opposition to the death penalty is not a weight around the neck when running for public office. Senator Vilsack strongly opposed the death penalty, and offered to filibuster on the floor of the Iowa Senate in 1995 to prevent House File 2 from being enacted. It wasn’t necessary; there were more than enough votes to defeat the measure that year.
However, years later Vilsack ran for governor and the issue was nothing more than a minor mention during the campaign. He didn’t hide the fact that he was a strong opponent of capital punishment. With that in mind, he went on to win two terms as governor. During the time he was governor, everyone knew that pushing a death penalty bill through the Iowa Legislature was a futile effort because Vilsack promised to veto such a bill.
You know what? Tom Vilsack never once said the word “veto” in the same sentence as “death penalty”. I cautiously watched for eight years. Never did Governor Vilsack promise to veto a death penalty bill. He did say, however, that he wouldn’t sign a bill reinstating the death penalty.
Today, Iowans should be proud that we held back those efforts in 1995. Since that year, several states have abolished the practice for a number of reasons. It’s too expensive. It is not administered justly. It is inhumane! It is discriminatory in practice, and evidence is emerging that indicates some people who have been executed may have been innocent.
I’m proud to live in a state that does not tinker with the machinery of death, as former Associate Justice Harry Blackmun called it.
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