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 Thursday, 16 January, 2003, 18:11 GMT
Death penalty opponents struggle on
Execution chamber at Terrell prison, Texas
Around 3,700 people are on death row in the US

Opponents of the death penalty still face major obstacles in their fight to abolish it.

Opponents gained hope from Governor Ryan's pardon
Opponents gained hope from Governor Ryan's pardon
The mass pardon of death row inmates by the outgoing governor of Illinois has raised hopes among the opponents of the death penalty in the United States that the tide might finally be turning.

Governor Ryan said he was taking the action because he was unsure that any of the convictions were safe.

DEATH PENALTY FACTS
2001 - 66 executions
1951 - 105 executions
66% of Americans support the death penalty
81% take place in southern states
38 states have the death penalty
More then 3,700 inmates are on death row
Opponents of the death penalty argue that it is applied disproportionately to African-Americans and poor people.

And an Illinois study showed that the death penalty is also applied inconsistently, with rural areas far more likely than large cities to impose it.

International concern has also been mounting over the use of the death penalty in the case of those who are mentally handicapped or under 18.

The 17-year-old Washington sniper suspect, John Lee Malvo, could be executed if found guilty of the shootings.

Obstacles

But there are three formidable problems for the advocates of reform.

The first is US public opinion, which remains overwhelming supportive of the death penalty.

In 1965 only 38% of people supported the death penalty, but by 1997 that had increased to 72%, according to the Harris poll.

Recent polls suggest that support has levelled off at around 66%, and when given alternatives like a permanent life sentence, about half of those supporting the death penalty would accept it instead.

But only about one-quarter agree to outright abolition.

It was not surprising that Governor Ryan only felt able to take action when he was about to stand down from office.

Conservative courts

The second problem is the attitude of the courts, which have become increasingly conservative on social issues.

In the past, opponents of the death penalty have tried to argue that it constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment", which is banned under the US Constitution.

And briefly, in the 1970s, they succeeded in getting the Supreme Court to take this view, but it was reinstated in 1976. Since then, more than 800 executions have taken place.

Now the higher courts are taking a tougher line on the death penalty, as the more conservative judges appointed by the Republicans become more dominant.

This week a divided Supreme Court demonstrated its tough stance but upholding a death sentence for a man tried twice for the same killing.

David Sattazahn's first jury sentenced him to life in prison but the second jury sent him to death row, after he appealed the decision on a technicality.

The Supreme Court has ruled against the death penalty in certain cases, especially where the defendant is mentally disabled.

But with the likely retirement of one or two key Supreme Court judges who are sceptical about the death penalty, the odds against court action to limit or restrict it will have lengthened even further.

Regional differences

The biggest problem, however, is that each of the 50 states is responsible for its own legislation on the death penalty.

Currently 38 states have the death penalty, most of them located in the West or the South.

In fact 81% of executions take place in the South, with Texas alone having by far the largest share.

Attitudes in these states are considerably more supportive of the death penalty than those in the North.

International concern about the use of the death penalty will continue, and attitudes towards it will also continue to divide Europe and America for some time to come.

See also:

12 Jan 03 | Americas
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