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Last Updated: Monday, 19 February 2007, 13:19 GMT
US wrestles with execution question
By Iain Watson
BBC News, Washington

Amnesty International protest against the death penalty
US death penalty opponents are vocal - but perhaps not a majority

On a pitch black winter's night at the Lady of Mercy church in the small town of Potomac, Maryland, about 50 people have braved sub-freezing temperatures to hear a chilling tale of an early death.

Vicki Schieber has come to talk about her daughter, Shannon.

Shannon was a student in nearby Pennsylvania.

She was raped and murdered at her hall of residence and the killer was caught only after he moved to a different state and committed another rape.

A transfixed audience listens to her mother's hushed yet longing tones: "What do you do when this happens to you? The death of a family member is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions."

Similar cases are often cited by supporters of capital punishment to argue that the families of murder victims get "closure" only when the killer is executed.

But Vicky Schieber is talking to an audience of abolitionists - those who want to end the death penalty in her home state of Maryland.

Ban plan

She says was pressed by state prosecutors to call for the death penalty for her daughter's killer, but she refused.

"It was against everything I was brought up to believe. Taking another person's life is wrong. Don't put a question mark where God puts a period," she told the crowd to spontaneous cheering.

Maryland State Senator Lisa Gladden (Courtesy of Sen Lisa Gladden's office)
We have to have courage, we can lead the way
State Senator Lisa Gladden
Maryland may be about to become the first state to ban the death penalty outright since the United States reintroduced it more than 30 years ago.

State Senator Lisa Gladden, a lawyer who has defended those accused of murder, has introduced a bill to ban executions and has called exonerated death row inmates to testify this week.

Maryland's new Democratic Governor Martin O'Malley has said he would be willing to sign any law which ended capital punishment.

Opponents of the death penalty like Sen Gladden believe that if Maryland outlaws capital punishment, other states will follow suit.

"We have to have courage, we can lead the way - I believe other states will think the death penalty is more trouble than it's worth and will repeal" it, she says.

Temporary suspensions

Thirty-eight of the 50 US states have the death sentence on the statute books - but almost a third of them have placed temporary bans on executions.

Angel Diaz
The drawn-out execution of Angel Diaz prompted a Florida rethink
The suspensions follow concerns about the possibility of wrongful convictions in some areas, and worries about the method of execution in others.

Late last year, the outgoing governor of Florida - President Bush's brother Jeb - suspended executions when it was revealed it took prisoner Angel Diaz 34 minutes to die after a lethal cocktail of drugs was apparently injected into tissue rather than into his veins.

But while many of the temporary bans centre on technical and legal challenges to the death penalty, politicians in Maryland seem willing to take on the moral arguments.

The state legislature has a Democratic majority, but that does not mean Sen Gladden's bill will pass automatically.

Even some Democrats are worried that a full frontal assault on the death penalty - rather than simply continuing with a moratorium on executions - could lead to an unwelcome counterattack by populist political opponents at the next election.

Strong support

Supporters of the death penalty think it likely that Maryland will formally abolish the ultimate sanction.

But they say the decision should be in the hands of all voters, and not just the politicians.

The death penalty is underutilised - there have been 7,000 intentional murders since the death penalty was restored in Maryland and only a handful of killers executed
Mike Paranzino,
Throw Away the Key
And that is because recent evidence suggests that even in states which currently have no death penalty, support for capital punishment remains strong.

Wisconsin was one of the first states to abolish capital punishment, in 1853. (Yes, 1853 not 1953).

Yet in a recent referendum, a narrow majority voted to re-instate it for the most vicious crimes, and on condition that DNA evidence of guilt was provided.

The referendum was not binding and the Democrat-controlled state legislature is unlikely to pass such a law.

But death penalty supporters cite Wisconsin's vote as an example of the continuing popularity of the death penalty so long as voters - and juries - are convinced they are not sentencing potentially innocent people on the basis of unreliable evidence.

Will of the people?

Mike Paranzino runs the pressure group Throw Away the Key from the town of Kensington in Maryland and is a former adviser to senior Republican politicians.

He says a referendum would better inform the voters of his state, many of whom would be shocked not at the imposition the death penalty, but about how rarely it is used.

"At the moment, the people of Maryland don't really know the ins and outs of how the death penalty is applied," he argues.

"Most child killers are exempt from the death penalty. Serial killers are exempt unless they kill more than one person on the same day.

"In fact, the death penalty is underutilised -there have been 7,000 intentional murders since the death penalty was restored in Maryland and only a handful of killers executed."

The anti-death penalty campaigners who listened to Vicky Schieber's harrowing story were treated to polling evidence commissioned by Maryland CASE - Citizens Against State Execution.

They said the polls show a narrow majority in the state still supports the death penalty.

But when asked if they would find life in prison without the possibility of parole a suitable alternative, two-thirds of them said they would support that option.

But it's unlikely this issue will be put to a popular vote.

And for the moment, existing evidence suggests Americans may be more queasy about how people are put to death - rather than why.

Rare death sentence in New York
31 Jan 07 |  Americas
Florida governor halts executions
16 Dec 06 |  Americas
Death penalty 'at record levels'
04 Apr 05 |  Americas

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