Monday, November 28, 2005

US to hold 1,000th execution this week

US to hold 1,000th execution this week

By Alan Elsner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is scheduled this week to witness its 1,000th execution since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, but even as it reaches this milestone opponents said capital punishment may be falling out of favor.

Some 997 people have been put to death since the Supreme Court ended a 10-year moratorium on capital punishment that ran from 1967-1977. With five people scheduled for execution in five different states this week, it seems almost certain that the landmark of 1,000 will be passed.

"This is a time for somber and sober reflection but the United States is slowly turning away from the death penalty," said David Elliot of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

"Death sentences are down 50 percent since the late 1990s to around 150 a year. Executions are down 40 percent from the high of 98 in 1999," he said.

The Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that crimes committed by juveniles could not be punished by death. That resulted in 71 people being taken off death row and followed another Supreme Court decision in 2002 declaring that it was unconstitutional to execute criminals who are mentally retarded.

A Gallup poll last month showed 64 percent of Americans favored the death penalty -- the lowest level in 27 years, down from a high of 80 percent in 1994.

"There's now considerable public skepticism about whether all those being executed are really guilty and that has cast doubt on the whole system," said Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center.

Texas, Virginia and Oklahoma account for more than half of the 997 executions performed since 1977. Texas alone has carried out 355.


Death penalty proponents argue that biased media coverage has eroded support but that Americans still fundamentally support capital punishment.

"Defense lawyers and appeals courts have made it so expensive and burdensome that prosecutors think twice before filing," said Steven Stewart, prosecuting attorney for Clark County, Indiana.

Republicans in the U.S. Congress are trying to pass legislation to speed up executions, complaining that the time between conviction and execution, which usually exceeds 10 years, is too long.

Stewart has tried four capital cases; twice the jury was hung during the penalty phase, once the judge set aside the sentence and one sentence was overturned during the lengthy appeals process. But Stewart remains committed to the idea of capital punishment.

"There are some defendants who have earned the ultimate punishment our society has to offer by committing murder with aggravating circumstances present," he said. "I believe that life is sacred. It cheapens the life of an innocent murder victim to say that society has no right to keep the murderer from ever killing again."

Among the individuals facing execution this week are Eric Nance in Arkansas, who was convicted of the 1993 murder of an 18-year-old woman, and John Hicks in Ohio, who was convicted of suffocating his 5-year-old stepdaughter in 1985.

If both of these are executed, the 1,000th defendant to die could be Robin Lovitt, scheduled to be executed in Virginia on Wednesday. His case has attracted worldwide attention with several prominent conservatives, including former special prosecutor Kenneth Starr who investigated then-President Bill Clinton's extramarital affair with Monica Lewinsky, urging Gov. Mark Warner to commute the sentence.

Lovitt was sentenced to death in 1999 for the murder of a night manager in a pool hall the previous year. He claims another man committed the murder and his lawyers argued he could have proved his innocence if DNA evidence used at his trial had not been illegally destroyed.

Warner, a popular Democrat, is widely seen as a possible presidential candidate in 2008 and his decision will be closely watched. He has denied each of the 11 previous clemency petitions that have come before him as governor.

If Lovitt is not executed, Kenneth Boyd, scheduled to die Friday in North Carolina and Shawn Humphries on the same day in South Carolina, could be the 1,000th and 1,001st executions since the end of what amounted to a voluntary, decade-long moratorium on executions by the states as the Supreme Court wrestled with the issue.