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Associated Press
Gov. Mike Pence

Pence could change course of debate on death penalty

It is an auspicious moment for a national conversation about capital punishment. After the botched execution of an Oklahoma prisoner, other states are questioning whether the drugs and procedures they use are reliable and humane. This, we believe, misses broader, more important questions.

In Indiana, which has not had an execution since 2009, officials announced last week that they had solved the death-drug shortage problem created when the makers of Pentathol ceased production three years ago. The state, they said, has laid in a supply of Brevital, another barbiturate anesthetic that could be used along with two other drugs to get the job done humanely. A spokesman noted that Michael Overstreet, who strangled Franklin College student Kelly Eckart to death in 1997, could be up for execution yet this year.

But soon after the state’s announcement, Par Pharmaceutical Companies, Inc., of Woodcliff, N.J., issued a statement objecting to Indiana’s plan. “Par’s mission is to help improve the quality of life” the statement read. “The state of Indiana’s proposed use is contrary to our mission.” Par added that it is working with wholesalers to make the drug unavailable for capital punishment.

So Brevital is, at best, a temporary solution. After that, what? Indiana could try hanging prisoners, or giving them cigarettes as they stand before firing squads.

As an alternative, Gov. Mike Pence could order a moratorium on executions pending a statewide discussion on whether Indiana should join the 18 states that have gotten out of the capital-punishment business.

We tend to agree with those who oppose the death penalty solely on moral principle, believing it is wrong for anyone, including the state, to take a human life.

But there are plenty of practical arguments for ending the death penalty as well. Its effect on crime is debatable, especially when it is practiced as rarely as it is; a small but distressing percentage of those executed are probably innocent; it imposes huge costs on all levels of the judicial system. (In a death penalty trial in Lake County last year, the public-defender costs alone came to almost $700,000, half of which was reimbursed to the county by the state.)

To those objections, some would add the age-old question of whether it is possible for the state to administer death quickly and cleanly enough. In the modern era, drugs were believed to be the answer – at least until now.

Most of the developed world has abolished capital punishment. If you are judged by the company you keep, America has a problem. The top six executioners in 2013 were China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Somalia.

The issue gets to what kind of a state and what kind of a nation we want to be.

Who better to lead the discussion of how we go forward than Pence, a compassionate conservative who aspires to govern both morally and practically?