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Monday, 24 June, 2002, 16:52 GMT 17:52 UK
Spotlight on US death penalty
Execution chamber at Terrell prison, Texas
Lethal injection is now the most common method of execution
A recent poll showed that just over two thirds of Americans still support the death penalty - down from a recent peak of 80% in 1994.

However, 82% of respondents opposed the execution of the mentally retarded and only 53% of those polled believed that the death penalty is applied fairly.

More people - 97 in total - were put to death in the US in 1999 than in any year since 1951.

The number of people executed over the last two years has declined, from 85 in 2000, to 66 in 2001.

Protesters outside Terre Haute prison Indiana
Protesters outside Terre Haute prison in Indiana
According to the Death Penalty Information Centre, 33 people have so far been put to death in 2002.

They include Tracy Housel, who on 13 March became the first British man to be executed in America for seven years.

Some 782 people have been executed since the death penatly was reintroduced in 1976. Of these 782 about 81% were carried out in southern states, 46% in Texas and Virginia 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
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 101 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 May 2002, the Governor of Maryland issued a moratorium on the death penalty until the completition of a report into racial bias in executions.

It is the nation's first state-wide death penalty moratorium since Illinois halted executions in 2000, when 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
2001 - 66 executions
1951 - 105 executions
101 people released from death row since 1973
66% of Americans support the death penalty
81% take place in southern states
Mr Ryan's move sparked a much wider review of the operations of the death penalty around the country.

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

The US Supreme Court recently ruled that executing mentally disabled killers is unconstitutional because it is "cruel and unusual" punishment.

Some 30 states had banned or stopped the execution of those who are mentally disabled, but the new ruling will force the remaining 20 states to follow suit.

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 2001, saying the jury should have considered his mental capacity.

See also:

15 Aug 01 | Americas
12 Jun 00 | Americas
11 Jun 01 | Americas
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