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Tuesday, 12 March, 2002, 11:00 GMT
'Compassion fatigue' in execution state
Lula Mae Pellerin, and son, Randall Housel
Housel's mother, Lula Mae Pellerin, and son, Randall Housel embrace
test hello test
By Jonathan Duffy
in Atlanta, Georgia for BBC News Online
line

Tracy Housel's case has reawakened the death penalty debate in Britain. But in Georgia, where he is due to die on Tuesday, it's the sixth execution since October.

His claim to British citizenship is dismissed by some as tenuous, but the case of Death Row prisoner Tracy Housel has whipped up interest in the UK.

However, on the doorstep of his execution chamber, in Atlanta, Georgia, Housel's story has passed by largely unnoticed.

Tracy Housel
Tracy who?
Mention the name "Tracy Housel" and most ordinary folk return a blank look. Elaborate a little on the details and the vacant gaze tenses with an air of bewilderment.

"Who? Tracy who?"

Clearly, neither Housel's crime, nor his punishment, is of much interest to the people in whose name he is about to die.

Patrick Stapleton does not recognise Housel's name, but is aware of his fate.

"I heard them talking about it on the radio this morning. That was the first time I heard anything about this guy," he says.

'The first I've heard'

His disregard for the story may be partly explained by the fact he wholeheartedly supports capital punishment. This, despite the fact that he is a children's special needs teacher - a profession that in the UK would probably see Mr Stapleton pigeon-holed as a compassionate liberal.

While in the UK, only one in four people wants to see the return of the executioner, Mr Stapleton's views on the death penalty chime with those of most Americans, according to statistics.

Bob Clark is also wholly unaware of the Housel story - Housel is due to die for beating to death a woman in 1985 - but he quickly warms to the subject. He opposes capital punishment and is troubled by the fact that another execution has been largely overlooked by the media.

London demo against Housel's execution
Debate rages, in the UK at least
"I think it's very, very unfair that this should happen without any publicity," says the young computer engineer as he soaks up the warm spring sunshine in the city's downtown district.

The problem with Housel's case, says Laura Moye, a local representative of Amnesty International, is that it's all-too typical.

"The abusive childhood, the mental health problems, his inadequate legal defence - these sort of things come up all the time in Death Row appeals."

It takes something more extraordinary to make people sit up and take notice. The recent case of Alexander Williams, whose death sentence was commuted, in February, to life imprisonment by Georgia's Board of Pardons and Paroles, is a case in point.

Overshadowed

The fact that Williams had a history of mental illness and was only 17 when he committed murder jolted some of America's more complacent elements to speak out, says Ms Moye.

Housel's case was also buried by the more emotive - some would say racially and religiously so - Al-Amin trial, in which a black militant turned Muslim cleric, has been convicted of murdering a deputy sheriff. On Monday the jury set about deciding whether the defendant should receive the death sentence.

Laura Moye
Laura Moye: "In Texas there's almost an execution every week"
But these notable cases are the exceptions, says Rhonda Cook, a reporter with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who has been covering Death Row stories in the area for more than 20 years.

Georgians have hit compassion fatigue in recent months as one execution has merged into another.

For three years Georgia halted all executions while the courts considered a challenge to its customary method of killing - electrocution. By the time this was finally settled in October - the state now uses lethal injection - there was a backlog of cases.

"There have been five in almost as many months and each time the media interest declines a little bit more," says Ms Cook.

A newsworthy death?

Laura Moye thinks without the British angle - Housel was born in Bermuda when the island was a British territory - his case would have almost sunk without trace.

"Because we are executing people with such frequency it makes it difficult for it to be newsworthy or have any impact. In Texas there's almost an execution every week."

Timothy McVeigh
Timothy McVeigh's execution had wide support
The lack of media interest suggests clear approval of the status quo among Georgia's voters. And although abolitionist campaigners talk of a turn in public sentiment, the figures are far from conclusive.

A nationwide poll in 2000 suggested public support for the death penalty had hit a 19-year low, but this still pointed to two-thirds of Americans backing capital punishment. Last year, the proportion of those in favour began to rose to 67%.

And with high profile executions - such as that last year of Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh - gaining widespread support, it seems that in all but a handful of American states, the death penalty has become just another part of daily life.

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