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Tuesday, 17 October, 2000, 08:45 GMT 09:45 UK
Campaign issues: The death penalty
What they say
BUSH GORE
Supports death penalty Supports death penalty
Use DNA evidence to improve legal process Use DNA evidence to improve legal process;
"Absolutely confident" no mistakes in Texas
Moratorium considered if there is evidence of errors

Fears that innocent people could be ending up on death row have made the death penalty an issue of public debate during the presidential campaign.

Although two thirds of Americans still support the death penalty - down from a recent peak of 80% in 1994 - the position taken by the candidates on the issue of wrongful executions has drawn media attention.

These concerns coincide with a rising number of executions - more people were put to death in 1999 than in any year since 1951.

A recent study of the death penalty in the US found that two-thirds of all capital convictions are overturned on appeal.

Of the cases where courts ordered a new trial, 7% were acquitted, while 75% were convicted but sentenced to lesser punishment.

Death penalty USA
38 states have the death penalty
More then 3,600 inmates are on death row
Execution can be by hanging, electrocution, gassing, the firing squad or lethal injection
Four states still use the electric chair
The study found the most common reasons for reversals were errors committed by incompetent defence lawyers, faulty instructions to juries or evidence withheld by law enforcement.

There are no definitive cases of innocent people having been executed, but 87 people have been released from death row since 1973.

Eight were cleared by DNA evidence and the rest for a variety of reasons - from recanted testimony to evidence overlooked or withheld, to inadequate legal representation. DNA testing is becoming increasingly important in challenging existing convictions.

There is also considerable evidence of racial discrepancies in death penalty sentencing against African-Americans.

States launch reviews

In January, George Ryan, Governor of Illinois and a pro-death-penalty Republican, imposed a moratorium on capital punishment after 13 wrongly convicted men were released from Illinois's death row.

Death in figures
1999 - 98 executions
1951 - 105 executions
87 people released from death row since 1973
66% of Americans support the death penalty
His move could have been a one-off event but has sparked a much wider review of the operations of the death penalty around the country.

Maryland, Nebraska and Indiana are also reviewing their administration of the death penalty for signs of malfunctioning, creating a national debate on the subject where none existed only a few months ago.

As Governor of Texas, Bush had presided over more than 130 executions by mid-June. Texas also leads the country for the number of executions since 1976.

Bush has said that he is "absolutely confident" that the process works fairly in his state - but many have criticised the poor representation that some of the convicted received.

Among other things, there have been reports of defence lawyers falling asleep during trials.

What the candidates think

Bush also presided over the first execution of a woman in the state since the civil war.


I'm going to uphold the law of the land and let the political consequences be what they may. If it costs me politically, it costs me politically

George W Bush
As Governor, Bush's only real power is to grant a 30-day reprieve. He exercised this for the first time on 1 June for Ricky Nolen McGinn after DNA evidence cast some doubt on the conviction.

Bush has insisted that no mistakes have been made in Texas, but signs of deficiencies in the Texan legal system have raised alarm bells.

Bush's opponent in the Presidential election, Vice-president Al Gore, supports the death penalty but has been remaining extremely quiet on the issue.

He is keen not to be described as a liberal who is soft on crime - a tag Bill Clinton managed to shake in his 1992 campaign by allowing the execution of a mentally ill man to go ahead during a key point in the primaries.

Gore has said that, while he does support the death penalty, if there is evidence of errors then a moratorium could be considered.

Candidates may not want to make the death penalty an issue - but events and campaigners are ensuring that it is.

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