The Supreme Court last week agreed to hear a death penalty case that hinges on a fine point. The court has ruled in the past that it is unconstitutional to execute people who can’t understand why they face death at the hands of the state – usually people with mental illnesses or diminished intellectual abilities. Vernon Madison, who killed a Mobile, Ala., police officer in 1985, knows the state intends to execute him for murder, but strokes and other ailments have left him incontinent, unable to recall the crime itself. So the question for the court is whether it is acceptable to execute someone who knows he was convicted of murder but can’t remember what he did.

This is how far into surrealism our death penalty system has fallen. Arguing over the fine lines and legal distinctions of a specific case tends to obscure the core unfairness and inhumanity of capital punishment itself. Death sentences fall disproportionately on minorities and the poor. Executions do not deter others from committing murder. Witnesses, police and prosecutors lie or make mistakes, leading to wrongful convictions. The clearest solution for all of these issues would be to end a practice that diminishes us all and indicts our collective humanity.

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