Polls show that Americans are still supportive of capital punishment but that they favor life imprisonment if given the option.
The justices in recent years have eliminated the death penalty for the mentally retarded and for juveniles. They have also been more demanding about the evidence presented to juries during sentencing and about the competence of lawyers defending the accused.
According to the petition filed by the Kentucky inmates, Ralph Baze and Thomas Bowling, resulting court decisions are a "haphazard flux ranging from requiring 'wanton infliction of pain,' 'excessive pain,' 'unnecessary pain,' 'substantial risk,' 'unnecessary risk,' 'substantial risk of wanton and unnecessary pain,' and numerous other ways of describing when a method of execution is cruel and unusual."
"There's nothing speculative about whether there can be problems," said Elizabeth Semel, director of the Death Penalty Clinic at the law school at the University of California at Berkeley. But proving widespread problems is difficult, she acknowledged, because of secrecy surrounding the procedures and an inability to know whether inmates were properly anesthetized.
I've got an easy answer to those last two problems: abolish the death penalty.