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Last Updated: Friday, 2 December 2005, 08:38 GMT
US support for death penalty wanes
James Westhead
BBC News, Washington

At precisely 0215 (0715 GMT) on Friday morning Kenneth Lee Boyd made macabre history in a North Carolina prison.

Witnesses surround an execution gurney
The number of death sentences has fallen sharply

The 57-year-old Vietnam vet was given a lethal injection, becoming the 1,000th person to be executed in the US since the Supreme Court re-instated capital punishment in 1976.

He was convicted of brutally murdering his estranged wife and her father in front of his own children.

In a prison interview before he was executed Boyd indicated he did not relish becoming a footnote in history. "I don't like the idea of being picked as a number," he said.

Fourth in the world

Nevertheless the grim milestone has re-ignited the debate over the ultimate US criminal sanction.

"This is a time for sombre and sober reflection but the United States is slowly turning away from the death penalty," said David Elliot of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

There's now considerable public scepticism about whether all those being executed are really guilty and that has cast doubt on the whole system
Richard Dieter, Death Penalty Information Center

Thirty-eight of the 50 US states and the federal government permit capital punishment.

Only China, Iran and Vietnam held more executions in 2004 than the US, according to rights group Amnesty International.

Texas, Virginia and Oklahoma account for more than half of the 1,000 executions performed since 1977. Texas alone has carried out 355.

Expensive process

However there are now indications of a shift in both public and official opinion. A Gallup poll last month showed that while a clear majority - 64% - of Americans still favoured the death penalty, that is the lowest level in 27 years - down from a high of 80% in 1994.

When respondents were offered the alternative of life imprisonment, those favouring the death sentence fell even further to only 50%.

At the same time there has been a sharp fall in the number of death sentences handed down and in the number of executions eventually carried out. The execution rate is down by around 50 % compared to the late 1990s.

One reason is that state governors - who have the final say - are more willing to grant clemency where there is any doubt, while prosecutors are more cautious of applying for death sentences in the first place knowing they will face years of expensive, burdensome appeals.

DNA evidence

Another reason for shifting attitudes is the use of more advanced DNA testing which did not exist when many of the criminals currently on death row were convicted.

Human Rights Watch advocacy director Jennifer Daskal says there have been 120 cases where death-row prisoners have been acquitted - often as a result of DNA testing.

And Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center says: "There's now considerable public scepticism about whether all those being executed are really guilty - and that has cast doubt on the whole system."

There have been legal moves to restrict the death penalty. Earlier this year the Supreme Court ruled that crimes committed by juveniles - under 18 - could not be punished by death, thereby allowing 71 people off death row.

Three years ago, the court declared it unconstitutional to execute criminals who were mentally retarded.

But some Republicans in Congress are concerned that all the legal wrangling is delaying justice. They are now trying to pass legislation to speed up executions and reduce the time between conviction and execution, which usually exceeds 10 years.

Separate measures are under way to increase the range of crimes punishable by death. One proposal would extend the death penalty currently reserved for first-degree murder to offences such as conspiracy to commit terrorist acts and certain gang-related crimes.

While the death penalty debate may be shifting slowly, as long as most people continue to support it, America's ultimate sanction is likely to remain.

Graph showing fluctuation in US public support for the death penalty for murderers
Question asked: Are you in favour of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?
All samples 800-1,000 adults
Face-to-face and telephone interviews
Margin for error +/- 3%

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25 Jan 05 |  Americas
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12 Aug 04 |  Americas
Calls for US death penalty review
12 Jan 03 |  Americas

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