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Sunday, December 28, 1997 Published at 15:21 GMT

image: [ BBC Correspondent: Henri Astier ]Henri Astier

The number of people put to death in United States prisons was higher in 1997 than at any time for 42 years. In the past twelve months 74 inmates have been legally killed and opponents of the death penalty say the pace of executions is expected to increase further. The BBC's US affairs analyst, Henri Astier, asks why the death penalty, which has been scrapped in many industrialised countries, remains so popular with Americans.

This year the number of prisoners put to death in the US reached 74 - the highest total since 1955.

No executions are scheduled between now and the New Year.

But the number is expected to rise further in 1998: about 3,000 inmates are waiting to be executed across the US and several states have passed new laws aimed at speeding up appeals.

Support for the death penalty is especially strong in the south. Texas alone accounted for almost half the executions this year.

But southerners are not alone: 75 per cent of Americans support capital punishment.

The Supreme Court ended a moratorium on the death penalty in 1976 when double killer Gary Gilmore, a habitual criminal who had no wish to spend the rest of his life in prison, insisted the state of Utah "kept its word" and carried out its death sentence.

He was duly executed by firing squad.

Since then 38 states have put the death penalty on their statute books and some have made it mandatory for certains offences.

But capital punishment does have its critics in the US.

This year the Washington Post came out against the death sentence passed on Timothy McVeigh for the Oklahoma City bombing.

Those who oppose the death penalty say executing criminals does not work and they point out violent crime remains high in the US.

But supporters of the death penalty say the death penalty is designed not to deter, but to punish criminals.

They feel killers and rapists deserve to die.

The reason why capital punishment continues to arouse such passion in the US is that for both sides of the debate, the issue is a moral one.

But the religious right has been given a real moral dilemma in the case of Karla Faye Tucker.

A former prostitute and drug addict, Tucker, 38, was convicted of murdering a man with a pickaxe in 1983 - she also killed his companion but was never tried for that crime - but has undergone a religious conversion on Death Row.

Now prominent pro-death penalty Christians such as Reverend Pat Buchanan are trying to prevent her being put to death on February 3.

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