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Wednesday, 6 June, 2001, 14:33 GMT 15:33 UK
Spotlight on US death penalty
Execution chamber at Terrell prison, Texas
Lethal injection is now the most common method of execution
The debate about the execution of Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh has focused attention on the death penalty in the US.

More than 700 people have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1972.

McVeigh's execution would be the first at federal level for 38 years.

Protesters outside Terre Haute prison Indiana
Protesters outside Terre Haute prison Indiana
Although two thirds of Americans still support the death penalty - down from a recent peak of 80% in 1994 - concerns about capital punishment coincide with a rising number of executions.

More people - 97 in total - were put to death in the US in 1999 than in any year since 1951. The number this year could be higher still as 46 people were executed during the first four months of 2001 alone.

Convictions overturned

A recent study of the death penalty in the US found that two-thirds of all capital convictions are overturned on appeal.

Of the cases where courts ordered a new trial, 7% were acquitted, while 75% were convicted but sentenced to lesser punishment.

Death penalty USA
38 states have the death penalty
More then 3,700 inmates are on death row
Execution can be by hanging, electrocution, gassing, firing squad or lethal injection
Four states still use the electric chair
The study found the most common reasons for reversals were errors committed by incompetent defence lawyers, faulty instructions to juries or evidence withheld by law enforcement.

There are no definitive cases of innocent people having been executed, but 95 people have been released from death row since 1973.

A small number were cleared by DNA evidence and the rest for a variety of reasons - from recanted testimony to evidence overlooked or withheld, to inadequate legal representation. DNA testing is becoming increasingly important in challenging existing convictions.

States launch reviews

In January 2000, George Ryan, Governor of Illinois and a pro-death-penalty Republican, imposed a moratorium on capital punishment after 13 wrongly convicted men were released from Illinois's death row.

Execution factfile
1999 - 98 executions
1951 - 105 executions
95 people released from death row since 1973
66% of Americans support the death penalty
His move could have been a one-off event but has sparked a much wider review of the operations of the death penalty around the country.

Maryland, Nebraska and Indiana are also reviewing their administration of the death penalty for signs of malfunctioning, creating a national debate on the subject where none existed only a few months ago.

When the US president was governor of Texas, George W Bush had presided over more than 130 executions by mid-June 2000. Texas also leads the country for the number of executions since 1976.

President Bush has said that he is "absolutely confident" that the process works fairly in his home state - but many have criticised the poor representation that some of the convicted received.

Penry case

Several states are also currently reviewing their policies regarding the execution of criminals with low IQs, particularly if this is related to their crimes.

Currently 14 states prohibit the execution of mentally retarded prisoners and eight others are considering a ban.

The debate has been typified by the case of Johnny Paul Penry, who confessed to the rape and murder of a 22-year old woman.

Penry, has been assessed as having the mental age of a seven-year-old with an IQ of about 60. He cannot read or write, does not know the days or the week and cannot count to 100.

A Texas jury was not instructed to include evidence of his mental ability as a mitigating factor in sentencing him to death.

The US Supreme Court overturned the death sentence on the 44-year-old in June, saying the jury should have considered his mental capacity.

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See also:

26 Mar 01 | Americas
Top US court tackles death penalty
07 Mar 01 | Americas
US courts block death penalty cases
18 Dec 00 | Americas
Death penalty petition targets US
12 Jun 00 | Americas
Most US death sentences 'flawed'
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