Tribune-Star Editorial graphic

Community again must engage in the debate on a difficult issue

It's been almost 25 years since the U.S Bureau of Prisons approached business and government leaders in Vigo County about supporting a plan to place a new death row and execution facility on the grounds of the federal prison south of Terre Haute.

The U.S. government was planning to resume federal executions, after a more than 30-year hiatus, using the new "lethal injection" method, which had met the courts' evolving "cruel and unusual punishment" standard. The Terre Haute prison grounds offered the feds everything they wanted — a remote outpost that was centrally located in the nation's mid-section.

The proposal met little resistance from local leaders, and the possibility of landing new and expanded prison facilities in return for placing the execution chamber and death row in Terre Haute made it seem all worthwhile.

The calculation paid off. A massive new correctional complex was indeed built here, giving the local economy a significant boost in employment and other services.

Domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh was the first person executed in the new death chamber for killing 168 people in the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. McVeigh's 2001 execution drew intense international attention to Terre Haute, but the community took it in stride.

After McVeigh, only two other inmates were executed, the last in 2003. Concerns over the lethal injection method and botched executions in some of the states led to the federal death penalty being suspended. Last summer, U.S. Attorney General William Barr ordered executions resumed and several are now scheduled in December and January. There are more than 60 federal inmates on death row.

Have local attitudes about the death penalty changed since the execution chamber was located here? We don't suspect there has been a wholesale shift in the way people think about capital punishment, but we do anticipate that advocacy groups will speak more forcefully and effectively as they raise issues related to the matter.

Earlier this week, a coalition of groups opposed to the death penalty gathered in a public meeting to discuss what lies ahead for the community and consider how to best coordinate their efforts and advocate their position. The Greater Terre Haute NAACP hosted the meeting with several groups attending. Together they hope to make the case that the death penalty is an ineffective way of preventing crime and does not serve the goals of criminal justice.

It may be a hard sell. The inmates scheduled for execution are convicted of heinous crimes and are not sympathetic characters.

Still, we're confident their efforts will at least stir some local soul-searching. At least we hope so. Capital punishment, no matter where you stand, is not an issue to be callously shoved aside. While the federal government hoped to minimize the impact an execution chamber has on public consciousness by locating it in a relatively remote area of the country, the people of Terre Haute and west-central Indiana must face it head on.

We applaud the NAACP and local anti-death penalty groups for making their voices heard and encouraging the entire community to engage in a worthwhile discussion about a compelling national issue.

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