[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Friday, 13 May, 2005, 17:14 GMT 18:14 UK
Abolitionists eye end to death penalty
By Matthew Davis
BBC News, Washington

Serial killer Michael Ross's execution is the first state-sanctioned killing in New England for 45 years. Across the United States, however, there are signs America's appetite for the death penalty is on the wane.

Witnesses surround a gurney
Lethal injection is the US's most prevalent form of execution

It is said that even the dozen US states without capital punishment are just one hideous murder away from bringing in the death penalty.

But recent years have seen a steady decline in the numbers of death sentences handed down, and a series of legal steps limiting the use of the ultimate sanction.

For the first time in decades, abolitionists are daring to think the unthinkable.

Professor Michael Mello, a former Florida capital crime defender, says for the first time in his life the US is "engaged in a grown-up debate about capital punishment".

"Three years ago I would not have envisaged a United States without the death penalty in my lifetime. Now I am not so sure," he told the BBC.

"The arguments are the same as 10, 20 or 50 years ago - the difference is that ordinary people are thinking about them."

Troubling aspects

In 1996 some 320 death sentences were passed in the US. In 2003 there were just 144, the lowest number since 1977.

Earlier this year, the US Supreme Court banned the death penalty for crimes committed by minors. That move came just three years after it banned the execution of the mentally retarded.

Richard Dieter, head of the Death Penalty Information Center, said: "There is not the enthusiasm there was for the death penalty during the 1990s - public opinion is still supportive, but it is not as high.

"There are areas that need fixing, so let's fix them - that is the attitude today, rather than let's get more capital offences onto the statute books."

A majority of Americans still support the death penalty for the worst of crimes, but increasingly those who have to put it into practice are finding themselves troubled.

Professor Mello - who represented serial killer Ted Bundy - says agreeing or disagreeing with the death penalty in theory means answering the wrong question.

There is not anywhere close to a level playing field - the demographics of Death Row bear that out
Professor Michael Mello

"We need to look at the reality of the system, of how it is administered. It is done so imperfectly, innocent people are discriminated against," he says.

"There is not anywhere close to a level playing field - the demographics of Death Row bear that out."

"What we have is Poor House justice - court-appointed defenders hopelessly outgunned by the resources of the prosecution."

Since 1973, more than 100 people sentenced to die have later been acquitted, many through advances in DNA technology.

This is seen by some as a factor pushing juries to opt for life imprisonment, rather than the death sentence.

Texas, which executes more than any other US state, does not give juries the option of a "life without parole" sentence.

'Medicine is working'

Supporters of capital punishment say signs of a waning appetite for the death penalty are a mirage.

Lethal injection: Authorized in 37 states
Electrocution: In 10 states (sole method in Nebraska)
Gas chamber: In five states (all of which have lethal injection as alternative)
Hanging: Only in New Hampshire and Washington
Firing squad: In Idaho and Oklahoma
Source: DPIC

A decline in sentencing is due to a fall in the US murder rate in recent years, some argue.

"The medicine is working," Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice legal Foundation, told the BBC.

"The idea that people's minds have changed, while the statistics are going the other way, is just plain wrong."

If there is misrepresentation on Death Row, it affects whites, not blacks, Mr Rushford argues.

"Out of all the people who commit capital murder, whites are sentenced proportionally more than blacks - but there are so many more black murderers," he said.


There was a 10-year moratorium on executions in the United States that ended in 1977 with the execution of murderer Gary Gilmore by firing squad in Utah.

Through consideration of a number of cases, the Supreme Court shaped new guidelines for juries and judges.

I think there is a possibility that the Supreme Court again may take a stab at doing what it thinks the public may want
Michael Rushford
In 2003, in one of the most radical moves of recent years, the governor of Illinois commuted the sentences of all 156 people on the state's Death Row, saying he had lost faith in the system.

The action was hailed a "watershed" moment.

But Michael Rushford claims abolitionists have "lost traction" since then.

"I think there is a possibility that the Supreme Court again may take a stab at doing what it thinks the public may want," he said.

"But it was wrong before and it will be wrong again."

Here is a selection of your comments:

Sensational media coverage of murders in the past few years has probably influenced many Americans to favor capital punishment. This appears particularly true in the sereis of recent cases of children murdered by known sex offenders. I am not particularly vindictive but some crimes are so terrible that the only appropriate punishment is death. I'm not sure I could sit on a jury and sentence someone to death - but I do know that there are circumstances which would warrant this.
Dave Woods, Cleveland/USA

This is not fair justice ,on behalf of a most democratic contry like USA , to execute criminal. What it shows is that to execute the criminal is just like biting the dog in turn,when the dog has bitten one . It is better to hate sin but not sinner .
bal deep rai, kathmandu, nepal

The ultimate sanction isn;t always the ultimate deterrent. The US frequently gets it wrong - holding someone on "death row", often for years, is a monumental waste of time and money. It is also barbaric. What doesn't help is the propensity for the justice system to listen only to what it hears, often at the expense of legitimate evidence from the defence team; it is also racially skewed. Above all, it is terribly final, and appears only to serve the vengeful feelings of those bereft of loved ones. It is these loved ones who need to practice forgiveness, and they would do well to look at The Lord's Prayer in this regard, as after all, Americans do swear by the almighty dollar, which bears the inscription "In God We Trust"! Seeking the termination of another in retribution, whilst it is a gut reaction, only serves to bring the person equal condemnation with the perpetrator.
Michael Black, Manchester, UK

Abolish death penalty? Keep abortion legal? What is up with this contradictory stance? What is the value of human life? Is it valuable or not? If it is valuable, let's get rid of abortion as well, if not, then who really cares if the death penalty is abolished or not? We need a unified stance on the value of life.
Ben, Madison, WI, USA

I am a firm beleiver in the reintroduction of the death penalty for certain crimes for example the murder of a police officer in the execution of his duties, the killing of a child, the killing of an elderly person.Prior to the death sentence ending in the 1960's, a murder was headlines today we see numerous murders in the newspapers every day of the week.
robert Cherrie, Twickenham UK

My position is simple. If you believe killing innocent people is wrong, you can not support the death penalty. The truth is, there are innocent people on death row. I don't understand how anybody with a soul can support the death penalty knowing this. Whether some people deserve to be executed for their crimes is irrelevant. We can not sacrifice the innocent so others can receive the ultimate punishment. It's just wrong. I'm very thankful I live in a part of the country that has abolished the death penalty.
Shawn, Washington, DC, USA

I propose that the choice be given to the one's convicted of such heinous crimes, so as to warrant deserving the death penalty, the choice of whether they receive the death penalty, or spend the rest of their lives in prison. I think this would eliminate most of the possibilities of putting an innocent to death. It also saves the rest of us from having to stoop to the same level as the one's who committed the heinous crime by ordering they be put to death. Tammy Madison, USA
Tammy, Madison USA

Death penalty 'at record levels'
04 Apr 05 |  Americas
The man who wants to be executed
25 Jan 05 |  Americas
Death row reversal becomes film
12 Aug 04 |  Americas
Calls for US death penalty review
12 Jan 03 |  Americas

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific